A Century Ago, One Lawmaker Went After the Most Powerful Cops in Texas. Then They Went After Him.Historians in the News
tags: racism, Texas, memorials, Latino history, public history, Mexican American history, Texas Rangers
When the wave of protests swept the United States this spring in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, one of the first monuments to come down was across from a Bruegger’s at the baggage claim at Dallas’ Love Field. It was a 12-foot bronze of a man with a pistol holstered on his hip and a cowboy hat on his head, lowering his left hand to appeal for calm. His name was E.J. Banks, and he was a Texas Ranger.
What precipitated the removal, in early June, was an excerpt, in D Magazine, from a new history of the Rangers called Cult of Glory, by former Dallas Morning News reporter Doug Swanson. In it, Swanson detailed Banks’ story: He was dispatched to North Texas in 1956 to prevent Black students from desegregating a high school. A photographer captured Banks, leaning against a tree, as an effigy of a Black student hanged above the school’s entrance. The statue, titled “One Riot, One Ranger,” was commissioned three years later.
Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the nation’s oldest Hispanic civil rights organization, told me he was glad to see the Ranger come down—something he had first called for as a Dallas City Council member in 1992. But he and LULAC believed a more substantial change was in order. “The Rangers need to be disbanded,” he said. “They’re a national disgrace.”
It is not the first time the 197-year-old law enforcement division has faced a reckoning. Today the idea of abolishing police departments and other law enforcement agencies such as ICE sounds new and radical to the uninitiated, but in Texas, in 1919, the future of the Rangers was uncertain. Over the previous decade, the Rangers, who had evolved from a frontier guard into a state security force controlled by the governor, had swelled in response to fears of violence on the southern border. In reality, the Rangers instigated a reign of terror in which between 300 and several thousand Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans were killed.
For almost two weeks in Austin, a single, courageous lawmaker, José Tomás Canales, put the Rangers on trial. A century later, the transcripts are essential for understanding our current moment—a remarkable document on race and the police, and the mechanisms of state violence and bureaucratic whitewashing.
The Rangers have been portrayed in popular culture as icons of law and order. To Garcia and others, the statue symbolized the myth underpinning their entire history—a lie laid bare by Canales a century ago.