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Texas and Racial Violence

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There’s another movie celebrating the Texas Rangers, The Highwaymen with Costner and Harrelson. It looks pretty bad and reviews are not great, but the bigger point is that the celebration of white Texan law enforcement violence is a real problem because the Texas Rangers have always been a racist task force supporting white supremacy.

But this myth has relied on a public willingness to overlook lawmen breaking the law and ignore (or even celebrate) the Rangers’ long history of racial violence targeting Native Americans, ethnic Mexicans and African Americans. “The Highwaymen” threatens to further this mythology at precisely the moment when many in Texas are beginning to grapple with this appalling history.

After Texas claimed independence from Mexico in 1836, the Texas Rangers were developed as a “fighting force” for Anglo settlers in the ongoing war for racial supremacy — battling Mexican landowners and indigenous nations while supporting chattel slavery. Frank Hamer started his career in the early 20th century when the Texas Rangers helped enforce new Jim Crow and Juan Crow segregation laws targeting black and Mexican Texans and intimidating labor organizers and anti-lynching activists. These state police officers blurred the lines between enforcing state laws, practicing vigilantism and inciting racial terror.

In fact, the abuses were so extensive that the Texas legislature investigated charges of Rangers denying residents due process, torturing prisoners, murdering unarmed prisoners and coordinating massacres. In early 1919, in the span of two weeks, 83 witnesses testified. Ultimately, the committee found the Texas Rangers culpable of misconduct and “unwarranted disregard of the rights of citizenship.”

All along the way, the Rangers and their supporters tried to undermine the legal process. Hamer played a significant role in this process. Over the years, he built a reputation for his harsh treatment of suspects, brutal interrogations and unhesitating use of his gun. In 1915 he posed next to the corpses of Jesus García, Mauricio García, Amado Muñoz and Muñoz’s brother like trophies. Photographer Robert Runyon turned carnage into profit when he sold the image as postcards. These postcards, like those of lynchings, circulated widely and were effective methods of racial intimidation. Cloaked in legal authority, the Rangers helped criminalize the dead and spread fear.

And so, when he came under investigation Hamer used the same tactics to defend himself. In December 1918, Hamer approached State Rep. José T Canales, asking for the name of the “[expletive]” who had accused Hamer and other Rangers of abusing him near Rio Grande City. Hamer warned Canales to stop collecting cases of Ranger abuse, threatening, “If you don’t stop that you are going to get hurt.”

Canales sent a telegram to Gov. William P. Hobby reporting the threat. But apparently threatening the life of a sitting state representative did not require disciplinary action. Adjutant General James Harley merely wired Hamer: “Under Governor’s orders you are instructed not to make any threats against the lives of any citizens especially J.T. Canales.”

Hamer’s fear tactics took their toll on Canales. In the days leading up to the legislature’s investigation, Hamer reportedly stalked the state representative around Austin. Canales’s wife, Anne Anderson Wheeler Canales, and other legislators, such as Lyndon B. Johnson’s father, Sam Ealy Johnson, escorted Canales into the hearing to protect him from assassination attempts.

In the end, Hamer’s intimidation failed. Canales continued to lead the investigation, and, despite the hostile climate, Anglo Texans, Mexican Americans, Mexican nationals and African Americans testified. In some cases witnesses identified Rangers sitting in the audience as their abusers. The collection of witnesses showed that Ranger violence touched members of all races, genders and classes in this era.

Hamer is the Costner character. And while the film focuses on hunting down Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, romanticizing such an unquestionably terrible human being and erasing his long history of racist violence is a terrible thing.

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