Texas Town 'Balances' Confederate Statue With One Of Lawyer Who Fought KKK

Jun 5, 2017
Originally published on June 6, 2017 3:11 pm

Arguments over Confederate statuary and flags rage on across the South. Confederate memorials in Norfolk and St. Louis were vandalized, the small town of Brandenburg, Ky. welcomed a Confederate statue that the University of Louisville had taken down and New Orleans has now removed four monuments. Controversies have also sprouted in Virginia, South Carolina and Maryland.

The debate over monuments usually centers around one question — should they stay or should they go? Now, some leaders of a town in Texas with their own controversial confederate statue believe they've found a third option — though not everyone is thrilled with their compromise.

Georgetown Mayor Dale Ross stands in his historic town square, hand resting proudly on the chest of Dan Moody, the city's latest statuarial acquisition.

"He is an icon in Williamson County. He was responsible for the first successful prosecution of the KKK in the United States of America," Ross explained.

Young Dan Moody stands proudly in bronze, hat in one hand, law book in the other. In 1923, Georgetown's 29-year-old district attorney charged and convicted four members of the local Ku Klux Klan for the whipping and tarring of a traveling salesman. It was during the height of the Klan's power, which had grown to millions of members nationwide. In Texas, that included one U.S. senator and the mayors of Dallas, Ft. Worth and Wichita Falls.

Ross says Moody's decision to prosecute stunned the conservative Georgetown community.

"Back in the day you had the Ku Klux Klan that was in every level of government, they were the leaders of the community," he said. "And so this was a totally courageous move by Dan Moody because he put his life in jeopardy."

Moody's triumph over the Klan made him nationally famous and he went on to become the youngest governor in Texas history.

These days, Georgetown is a conservative suburb north of Austin of 60,000 people. There'd long been talk about erecting a statue of Dan Moody. But in June of 2015, a racist rampage at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. changed the conversation.

The killings of nine black worshipers prompted a political backlash against Southern battle flags and Confederate memorials. And that included in Georgetown.

"I called our county judge [and] said, 'I'm sure there are going to be some kind of issues here,'" said Mickie Ross, director of the Williamson Museum in Georgetown. Her prediction was correct.

A local group of African-Americans, Unitarian and Methodist Ministers and white liberals had been advocating for something to happen with a 100-year-old statue of a confederate soldier that towers over the town square — move it to Ross's museum or at least put a plaque next to it detailing the realities of Georgetown slave life at the time.

But the town's predominately conservative white leadership wasn't crazy about either of those ideas. But what about adding a statue of the local hero who once fought the Ku Klux Klan?

"And there began to be some letters to the editor about maybe we should promote Dan Moody here," Ross said.

So last October, a spiffy, forever young Dan Moody took his place on the courthouse square.

In the beautifully restored courtroom where Moody won his four historic assault cases, author Patricia Bernstein recently addressed a crowd who's come to hear her talk about Moody and the Klan.

Bernstein's book is entitled 10 Dollars To Hate, because that's how much it cost to join the Texas Klan in the 20s.

"My motive is not so much to remove every Confederate statue but to have more of a balance in our public life," she said. "This new wave that's just starting to get started of celebrating other kinds of heroes that have more to say for our own time."

But some in Georgetown disagree that adding a statue of someone like Dan Moody fairly offsets the history a Confederate statue represents.

"Well it came about without our input. No one asked us," said Jaquita Wilson, a leader in Georgetown's small African-American community.

Wilson says Dan Moody means little to nothing to people of color in Williamson County. And that people of color have historically meant little to nothing to white Williamson County.

"When you walk around this courthouse, there's no mention that there were Latinos, that there were Native Americans, that there were African-Americans here," she said. "Just white Georgetown."

Now here's the twist in the Dan Moody story. Remember that traveling salesman the Georgetown Klan whipped and tarred back in 1923? Ralph Burleson was a young, World War I veteran, knocking around the country selling silk hosiery door to door. And he was white.

The reason the Klan got agitated was that Burleson rented a room in a Georgetown widow's house. It was a straightforward boarding arrangement but the Klan didn't like the optics so it turned Burleson into a half-dead bloody pulp. The young district attorney was appalled and decided he didn't want the KKK to get away with it on his watch. But, Wilson says, none of it had anything to do with Georgetown's black community.

The Dan Moody statue, she says, "definitely wasn't for us." After he rode that victory to governorship, he made it his business to reduce the voting rights of African-Americans.

In 1944, Moody tried to prohibit African-Americans from voting in the Texas Democratic primary, arguing the party was like a private club and therefore could keep black voters out.

Jaquita Wilson says if Georgetown wants to make a gesture to its black community it should take down the towering symbol of slavery and oppression that stands in the town square.

"It gives me like a punch in the gut," she said about the statue.

But for Retired Colonel Shelby Little, leader of the Williamson County chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the memorial is a monument, not to slavery, but to the Confederate soldiers that served in the war.

"It's something we are facing all across America and even right here in Georgetown Texas," he said, "the abysmal illiteracy when it comes to history."

Standing in a Georgetown cemetery next to the graves of 113 Confederate soldiers, Little says the memorial will stay right where it is unadorned by any plaque about black people or slavery.

"They have an agenda and they are not going to stop until they see that agenda satisfied," he said of people who want to move or change it. "If they want to put a plaque on the other side of the courthouse or somewhere in the area that is great. But don't impugn the integrity of our Confederate heroes."

It's almost cliché when writing about politics in the South to quote William Faulkner's line: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

But never is that more true than when trying to decide who exactly gets honored in Southern town squares.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The arguments over Confederate monuments and their ties to slavery continues almost daily across the South. Confederate memorials in Norfolk and St. Louis were vandalized while the small town of Brandenburg, Ky., welcomed a Confederate statue that the University of Louisville had taken down. So should they stay, or should they go? NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports that some leaders of a town in Texas believe they have found a third option.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Georgetown Mayor Dale Ross stands in his historic town square and resting proudly on the chest of the city's latest statuarial acquisition.

DALE ROSS: Dan Moody - he is an icon in Williamson County. He was responsible for the first successful prosecution of the KKK in the United States of America.

GOODWYN: Young Dan Moody stands proudly in bronze, hat in one hand, law book in the other. In 1923, Georgetown's 29-year-old district attorney charged and convicted four members of the local Ku Klux Klan for the whipping and tarring of a traveling salesman. It was during the height of the Klan's power, which had grown to millions of members nationwide. In Texas, that included one U.S. senator and the mayors of Dallas, Fort Worth and Wichita Falls. Ross says Moody's decision to prosecute stunned Georgetown's community.

D. ROSS: Back in the day, you had the Ku Klux Klan that was in every level of government. They were the leaders of the community. And so this was a totally courageous move by Dan Moody because he put his life in jeopardy.

GOODWYN: Moody's triumph over the Klan made him nationally famous. And he went on to become the youngest governor in Texas history. These days, Georgetown is a conservative suburb north of Austin of about 60,000 people. There'd long been talk about erecting a statue of Dan Moody. But in June of 2015, a racist rampage at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., changed the conversation. The killings of nine black worshipers generated a political backlash against the Confederate battle flag and Confederate memorials. And that included in Georgetown.

MICKIE ROSS: I called our county judge because I said, I'm sure there are going to be some kind of issues here.

GOODWYN: Mickie Ross is the director of the Williamson Museum. And her prediction was correct. A local group of African-Americans, Unitarian and Methodist ministers and white liberals had been advocating that something be done with the 100-year-old Confederate statue that towers over the town square. Move it to Ross's museum, or at least put a plaque next to it detailing the realities of Georgetown slave life at the time. But the town's predominantly conservative, white leadership wasn't crazy about either of those ideas. But what about adding a statue of the local hero who once fought the Ku Klux Klan?

M. ROSS: And there were - began to be some letters to the editor about - maybe we should promote Dan Moody here.

GOODWYN: And so, last October, a spiffy, forever-young Dan Moody took his place on the courthouse square.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATRICIA BERNSTEIN: Thank you so much.

GOODWYN: In the beautifully restored courtroom where Moody won his four historic assault cases, author Patricia Bernstein addresses a crowd who's come to hear her talk about Moody and the Klan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNSTEIN: In the early 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan, of all things - it was very popular up in the Midwest. In fact, a lot of historians think that Indiana ended up being the state most thoroughly infested by the Klan.

GOODWYN: Bernstein's book is entitled "Ten Dollars To Hate" because that's how much it cost to join the Texas Klan in the 1920s.

BERNSTEIN: My motive is not so much to remove every Confederate statue but to have more of a balance in our public life - this new wave that's just beginning to get started of celebrating other kinds of heroes who have more to say for our own time.

JAQUITA WILSON: Well, it came about without our input. No one asked us.

GOODWYN: Standing next to the Confederate memorial, Jaquita Wilson is one of the leaders of Georgetown's small African-American community. Wilson says Dan Moody means little to nothing to people of color in Williamson County and that people of color have historically meant little to nothing to white Williamson County.

WILSON: When you walk around this courthouse, there's no mention that there were Latinos, that there were Native Americans, that they were African-Americans here - just white Georgetown.

GOODWYN: Here's the twist in the Dan Moody story. Remember that traveling salesman the Georgetown Klan whipped and tarred back in 1923? Ralph Burleson was a young World War I veteran knocking around the country, selling silk hosiery door to door. And he was white. The reason the Klan got agitated was because Burleson rented a room in a Georgetown widow's house.

It was a straightforward boarding arrangement. But, apparently, the Klan didn't like the optics and so turned Burleson into a half-dead, bloody pulp. The young district attorney was appalled and decided, not on my watch, Ku Klux Klan. But Wilson says none of it had anything to do with Georgetown's black community.

WILSON: And so that's why we're like, the Dan Moody statue - that's great for you. But it definitely wasn't for us. Once he rode that to governorship, he made it his business to reduce the voting rights of African-Americans.

GOODWYN: In 1944, Moody opposed the black franchise by trying to prohibit African-Americans from voting in the Texas Democratic primary. He argued the party was like a private club and therefore could keep black voters out. Jaquita Wilson says if Georgetown wants to make a gesture to its black community, take down the towering symbol of slavery and oppression that stands in the town square.

WILSON: It gives me, like, a punch in the gut.

GOODWYN: But for retired Col. Shelby Little, leader of the Williamson County chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the memorial is a monument not to slavery but to the Confederate soldiers that served in the war.

SHELBY LITTLE: It's something that we're facing all across America, even right here in Georgetown, Texas - is the abysmal illiteracy when it comes to history.

GOODWYN: Standing in a Georgetown cemetery next to the graves of 113 Confederate soldiers, Little says the memorial will stay right where it is, unadorned by any plaque about black people or slavery.

LITTLE: They have an agenda. And they are not going to stop until they see that agenda satisfied. If they want to put a plaque on the other side of the courthouse or somewhere in the area, that is great. But don't impugn the integrity of our Confederate heroes.

GOODWYN: It's almost cliche when writing about politics in the South. To quote William Faulkner, "the past is never dead. It's not even past." But never is that more true than when trying to decide who exactly gets honored in Southern town squares. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Georgetown, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.