On Jan. 25 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that “True Grit” had been nominated for 10 Oscar awards including best picture for 2010. The main characters in this movie are members of the notorious Quantrill Raiders and Texas Rangers. It is noteworthy that not one person of color was nominated in any of the major acting categories for any film, proving once again the institutionalized bias that dominates the U.S. film industry.
“Culture serves the class organization of society. An exploiting society gives birth to an exploitative culture.”
Popular culture in the United States is big business. Movies, books, TV shows, not to mention YouTube and iTunes, generate billions of dollars in profits for the capitalists who invest in them. They also help to reinforce and propagate the key underlying ideas and values of the ruling class.
Whenever and wherever racists and exploiters gain ascendancy, they push their ideas into the popular culture. With little regard for historical truth, they spin heroic tales of daring do, often using marginal figures who in reality were little more than racist thugs, building them into heroes to be admired and emulated.
Quantrill’s Raiders were formed during the pro- and anti-slavery fighting that was a prelude to the Civil War in the region of Kansas and western Missouri. They were among the most fanatic pro-slavery, racist elements of the Confederacy, comparable to the later Ku Klux Klan. By any reasonable account they were guilty of war crimes and worse.
On Aug. 21, 1863, William Quantrill, with 450 zealous irregular cavalry, approached the town of Lawrence, Kan. Lawrence was well-known as a center of anti-slavery sentiment, led by the late John Brown.
On Quantrill’s orders, the raiders killed 183 men and boys, all civilians “old enough to carry a rifle,” dragging many from their homes to execute them before their families. (Charles Mills, “Treasure Legends of the Civil War”) The ages of those killed ranged from as young as 14 all the way up to 90. When Quantrill’s men rode out at 9 a.m. most of Lawrence was burning. His raiders looted indiscriminately.
The following October, now in Oklahoma, Quantrill wrote his only official report of the war, claiming he had “killed 150 Negroes and Union Indians in the Cherokee Nation.” (Oklahoma Historical Society, digital.library.okstate.edu)
One of Quantrill’s commanders, “Bloody Bill” Anderson tried to outdo him with a raid on Centralia, Mo., where the “bushwackers,”as they proudly called themselves, displayed from their saddles the scalps of the 22 people they killed after they had first stripped and mutilated the bodies.
Both Quantrill and Anderson were killed near the end of the Civil War. Yet popular culture has idealized many of those who rode with them, such as Frank and Jesse James, as romantic outlaws.
A host of Western genre movies and novels have produced fictional characters who supposedly rode with Quantrill and given them sympathetic if not heroic treatment. Among those who have had starring roles in such films are Audie Murphy, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and, more recently, Jeff Bridges in the new movie version of “True Grit.”
Texas Rangers & theft of Mexico
The role of the Texas Rangers was not unlike that of Quantrill’s Raiders. They have been heroes in countless movies and novels, including “Bonnie and Clyde” and “True Grit.” Even the Lone Ranger of radio and TV fame was supposed to have been a Texas Ranger. The Texas Rangers are so iconic that the State of Texas actually has a law on the books which forbids their disbandment. (Texas Government code Sec. 411.024, texasranger.org/today/statutes.htm)
The Texas Rangers were a mercenary army set up by Steve Austin to steal territory from Mexico. After the “Texas revolution” the Rangers were deployed to wipe out the Cherokee and Comanche Nations, which had supported the Mexicans. They were part of the 1846 U.S. invasion launched by President James Polk in the U.S.-Mexican War that followed the U.S. annexation of Texas in 1845.
During the Civil War, Texas was a Confederate state, and the Texas Rangers served as part of the Confederate Army. After the war, the Texas Rangers played a big role in the war for western territory that decimated the Native peoples, including the Kiowa and the Apache Nations.
Their true character was shown in the El Paso Salt War when they were sent by the governor of Texas to back up an Anglo Texas businessman who was attempting to privatize the great salt flats that lay at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas. The Mexican inhabitants had launched an armed struggle to preserve their traditional communal use of the area.
Contrary to their reputation that “they always get their man,” the Rangers were forced to surrender to the popular committee leading the resistance. Unlike the Rangers’ or Quantrill’s Raiders’ victims, the captured Rangers were merely stripped of their weapons and permitted to leave.
The U.S. Cavalry was then sent in, along with a sheriff’s posse of New Mexico mercenaries, to establish by force of arms the right of individual capitalists to own the salt lakes previously held as a community asset. Hundreds of Tejanos/as were forced to flee to Mexico, many in permanent exile.
During the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1918, the Texas Rangers took it upon themselves, even though it was not their country, to oppose the revolution. A 1919 investigation by the Texas Legislature found that from 300 to 5,000 people, mostly of Mexican descent, had been killed by Rangers from 1910 to 1919. (Charles Hill & Louis Sadler, “Border and Revolution: Clandestine Activities of the Mexican Revolution”)
It is important to put these sources of popular culture into their historical context. They are not “just movies” or “a good story.” They are conscious, often devious, means of influencing people’s consciousness in a reactionary manner.
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