After nearly four hours of testimony and an emotional show of opposition from some legislators of color in the Texas Senate, the upper chamber approved Tuesday a bill that would expand protections for historical monuments.
While the legislation doesn't explicitly single out Confederate markers for protection, several Democrats needled the author of the bill, Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, since his measure would effectively shield such landmarks from being removed.
"The bill that you're carrying on the Senate floor today is disgraceful," said state Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston. "I ask that you consider some of the pain and heartache that we have to go through — myself and some of the brothers and sisters on this floor of color and what we've had to go through as it relates to our Texas history."
Creighton's Senate Bill 1663 would require two-thirds of members in both legislative chambers to approve of the removal, relocation or alteration of monuments or memorials that have been on state property for more than 25 years. City or county monuments that have been up for at least 25 years could only be removed, relocated or altered if approved by a supermajority of the governing board.
Monuments and memorials that have been around less than 25 years could not be altered without approval from a state agency, state official or local government body, depending on who erected it. State or local entities who skirt the law would be subject to a fine for each violation. The bill tentatively passed the upper chamber in a party-line 19-12 vote. (Update: The Senate gave the measure final approval later in the night.)
"Our history is part of who we are and part of the story of Texas, but history is never just one person's account," Creighton told other senators Tuesday. "We've seen a trend across the nation and the world where controversial monuments are removed or destroyed, often without any input, study or process. I fear that we'll look back and regret that this was a period where deleting history was more important than learning from it."
Democrats, meanwhile, pushed back on the notion that tearing down landmarks amounted to erasing history. At one point, members of the Texas House's Legislative Black Caucus left the lower chamber, which was also in session, crossed the Capitol and congregated in the upper chamber to stand in solidarity against the bill. Meanwhile, other senators advised Creighton to remember the lawmakers of color in the chamber — saying the issue surrounding Confederate monuments hits closer to home for them.
"Are you aware as we're having this discussion the pain and hurt of state Sens. Miles and [Royce] West?" state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, asked Creighton of the two black lawmakers in the Senate. "Do you have any idea on how you're removing the scabs of some of their most painful experiences? … Are you aware of what you're putting them through?"
"You just asked me seven times if I'm aware," Creighton responded. "You know that I am certainly aware. There are no members that I have more respect for on the floor than Sens. West and Miles."
Creighton also repeatedly insisted that his bill would affect more than just Confederate symbols across the state. He told West that Alamo monuments and Ten Commandments monuments would fall under the scope of his bill, too.
West unsuccessfully attempted to add an amendment to the bill excluding Confederate monuments. And earlier in the day, he asked Creighton to pull his bill down in order to get public input from members of the community about the legislation — what West said would constitute a "good faith effort to involve everyone."
"I respect the suggestion. I don't prefer to pull the bill down," Creighton said, later adding that "it's up to us to recognize facts and the history that we own head-on."
Lawmakers tacked on a number of amendments to the bill, including one, by Creighton, that would keep the Alamo Cenotaph in the location it was placed after its completion, ensuring local officials couldn't move the landmark. Another amendment, by Miles, would require Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to appoint a seven-member committee to review each work of art displayed in the Senate chamber.
The success of Creighton's bill comes amid a larger debate over whether Confederate monuments should be preserved or taken down. Last month, a House committee heard emotional testimony on a bill similar to Creighton's by state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, that would expand protections of historical monuments. While both White and Creighton's bill don't explicitly single out Confederate markers for protection, some supporters of both pieces of legislation have said they're hoping the legislation can protect such landmarks.
Tuesday's debate came on the heels of efforts by a conservative nonprofit known as the Conservative Response Team to press state leaders to move legislation — including Creighton's — protecting Confederate monuments while cities across the state grapple with whether to take such markers down. It also comes months after a state board that oversees the Texas Capitol grounds voted unanimously to remove a controversial Confederate plaque that falsely said the Civil War was "not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery."
Several times during Tuesday's debate, Patrick or whichever senator was presiding over the dais had to step in to keep lawmakers from talking over each other.
"I'll stand here until hell freezes over," Whitmire said after a testy exchange with Creighton over how the bill would affect local officials, particularly when it comes to renaming schools named after Confederate leaders.
The rest of Tuesday's debate was marked with a similarly contentious tone. Democrats were largely opposed to the bill, with many criticizing it for failing to define what constitutes a person or event of "historical significance." Others were concerned it would create a harder process for the removal of Confederate monuments in the state — several which are more than 25 years old.
"There's two African Americans in this body, and we know the history of Texas and other Confederate states," said West, a Dallas-area Democrat. "But I want to make certain we don't leave this floor without recognizing what that history is."
A handful of Republicans jumped to Creighton's defense, including state Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, who is carrying a bill similar to Creighton's.
"It's vitally important to know where we came from," Fallon said.