The Texas Rangers didn’t invent police brutality, says the author of a new book, ‘they perfected it’

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Doug J. Swanson’s new book arrives at an extraordinary time in American history. Its official publication date is June 9, barely two weeks removed from the killing of George Floyd. A 46-year-old black man, Floyd died in police custody after a white officer pinned him to the ground with a knee to his neck, igniting protests across the country.

Swanson’s new book is Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers, who began in 1823 as a 10-man volunteer squad raised to protect the first American settlers in the Mexican territory of Texas. The Rangers, in Swanson’s words, “functioned as executioners” whose “job was to seize and hold Texas for the white man.”

In the same way that author Gerald Posner’s latest book, Pharma, arrived on March 10, three days before the coronavirus provoked a national emergency, and with one of its chapters titled “The Coming Pandemic,” Swanson sees Cult of Glory as being “very timely.”

Eerily so.

“The nation reels anew,” Swanson says from his home in Pittsburgh, where the 34-year veteran of The Dallas Morning News now teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh. “But it’s an old story: white police officers killing men and women of color. Some of the very worst of it happened a little over 100 years ago, along the Texas-Mexico border. There, the Texas Rangers — the vaunted official force of the Lone Star State — didn’t invent police brutality. But they perfected it. Operating as what we would now term death squads, they executed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

“Some of those killed were bandits who attacked white-owned farms and ranches. But many of the dead had committed no crimes. They were guilty only of having brown skin. Or they lived on land that white ranchers wanted to steal. The Rangers obliged by beating and shooting them.”

Swanson recently turned 67. A native of Tampa, Fla., he and his family moved to Dallas when he was 16. It was the hardly the case of a teenage boy suffering adolescent angst over his parents relocating. He was thrilled. Compared to Tampa, Dallas was bright lights, big city.

He calls himself a “proud graduate” of Woodrow Wilson High School, where he fondly remembers the football team that played in the state semifinals in 1969, propelled by running back John Paul McCrumbly, who later played for Texas A&M University and the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League.

A light dawns

T.S. Eliot once said, “Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow.” And so it was for Swanson, who’d read a story in Texas Monthly in 1994 that caused a light to go on. Titled “The Twilight of the Texas Rangers,” it gave birth to an idea that lingered in his head for years. Finally, it left the shadows and became reality when Viking, his publisher, urged him to do “a big Texas book.”

Sure, the Rangers had been written about before, but no one had published a tome about the agency’s nearly 200 years, much less one that took a harrowing deep dive into the Rangers’ darkest moments.

“Walter Prescott Webb’s book, which was published in 1935, is generally seen as the classic Rangers’ book,” Swanson says, “but he was quite friendly to the Rangers.”

Historian Robert M. Utley “published a two-volume history in the early 2000s, but Utley, as distinguished as he is,” Swanson says, “really took a soft approach. I started looking at some of the Rangers’ legends, and they really fell apart.”

One example involves Rangers icon James Callahan, who’d been lionized in previous books, Swanson says, “for going after Indians who’d been marauding into Texas” in the 1800s. Swanson interviewed dozens of people, but where the story began to emerge was in the “thousands and thousands” of pages he pored over in state archives and museums.

“I badly underestimated how many records I needed to go through,” he says, noting that instead of taking the anticipated two years to finish the book, it took five. Cult of Glory is the second work of nonfiction for an author who has published five novels.

In the early 1900s along the Mexican border, the Rangers killed hundreds of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. This postcard celebrated the deaths of "Mexican Bandits." This is a photograph from Doug J. Swanson's new book, "Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers."

What Swanson discovered during his research is that Callahan, for one, symbolized the Maginot line between myth and reality that permeates Rangers folklore. Instead of being a hero commended for protecting citizens from lawless invaders, what Callahan did, most infamously, Swanson says, was chase runaway slaves. He then seized them and sold them.

Years after his death, Callahan has had his reputation polished to a spit-shine by Rangers mythologists, who Swanson contends are masters of revisionist history.

“That was the first one I really started digging into,” he says, uncovering multiple examples that showed the real story to be “far richer than anyone had shown.” The pattern, he says, revealed itself “again and again and again,” all but screaming at him that “this is what the the book should be about.”

A character widely celebrated in the Rangers’ folklore is Stephen F. Austin, heralded for almost two centuries as the father of Texas.

Austin is credited, in historical records, for having also founded the Rangers. What’s more precise, Swanson says, is that Austin helped establish the “proto-Rangers,” an armed delegation of 10 men appointed to wipe out the Karankawa Indians. The 10 are often hailed as “the first Rangers — in 1823,” Swanson says.

Texas Rangers Capt. Clint Peoples loved meeting Hollywood stars. Here he chats up James Arness of the TV show "Gunsmoke."
Texas Rangers Capt. Clint Peoples loved meeting Hollywood stars. Here he chats up James Arness of the TV show “Gunsmoke.”(Texas State Library and Archives)

The bad and the good

Recent history has not been kind to the record they left behind. One of the exhibits at the new Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum that documents human rights abuses shows how Austin, with the help of the Rangers, wiped out the Karankawa people.

They represented a threat — by standing in the way of an expanding white population that coveted the land they were living on.

What Swanson found in his thousands of documents is that the history of the Rangers is hardly a pretty picture when it comes to documenting their treatment of people of color. In too many cases, they’ve put a metaphorical knee on the neck of people of color.

Even then, he concedes, the history of the Rangers is not without its legitimate high points.

“They helped pacify an extraordinarily wild and savage place — Texas. Criminals were rampant across frontier Texas. They helped bring them to justice. They were really valuable scouts and guerrilla fighters in the Mexican war. At the same time, however, they were committing horrible atrocities in the Mexican war.”

And yet, the modern Rangers have “done some really good stuff,” he says, solving scores of high-profile cases “and providing valuable service to small-town departments. They helped break the Texas Youth Commission sexual abuse scandal. They brought a murdering priest to justice. They’ve done extraordinarily strong work on cold cases. So, yes, they’ve done a lot. Texas would not be the same without them. There’s no doubt about that. And they are deeply woven into the history of the state.”

Swanson compares their reputation to that of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or even Scotland Yard. They have been celebrated in movies and television series, including Chuck Norris’ role in the long-running, locally produced CBS drama Walker, Texas Ranger.

Even the North Texas entry in Major League Baseball is the Texas Rangers, and before they became the Dallas Cowboys, the region’s NFL franchise flirted with the notion of calling themselves the Dallas Rangers. There was even a statue at Love Field — of a captain in the Texas Rangers. The statue was removed Thursday, as a result of Swanson’s book.

In Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Lonesome Dove, his pair of colorful protagonists are former Texas Rangers. But in another McMurtry novel, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, hero Danny Deck is, in Swanson’s recap, “driving down a dirt road in the Texas outback where he’s accosted by Texas Rangers, who start making fun of his long hair. They grab him and heave him into a cactus patch.”

Asked for comment about Swanson’s book and the removal of the statue, the Texas Rangers issued a statement to The Dallas Morning News :

“The department is aware of Mr. Swanson’s book, and we also know that the city of Dallas elected to remove a Texas Ranger statue from the Love Field Airport, which they have the authority to do. We can tell you that today, more than ever, we remain committed to the mission of protecting and serving the community and people of Dallas, and Texans everywhere.”

Underbelly of history

The Danny Deck story speaks to the underbelly of Rangers’ history, the darkness that reveals itself as often as the light and which serves as the underpinning of Swanson’s book.

Part of that history includes 1919, when the Rangers, Swanson says, “actively conspired to run the NAACP out of Texas, to quash the civil rights of black Americans.”

Part of that history shows how the Rangers took the easy way out and “sat on evidence” that would have exposed professed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas as a pathological liar, as someone who could not possibly have committed “the dozens of crimes he confessed to.”

Part of that history shows the ugliness of how the Rangers acted as “agents of the white, empowered class. If a white rancher in South Texas wanted to steal some Tejano land, they would bring in the Rangers to kick the Tejanos off of it.”

Part of that history reveals the Rangers as agents of racism in aiding the efforts of then-Texas Gov. Allan Shivers, a strict segregationist, who despite a court order to the contrary, dispatched the Rangers to a school in Mansfield “to arrest any black kids who tried to enroll.”

In many such cases, Swanson says, the Rangers were “just following orders. I’m not saying the Rangers were intrinsically evil. But they were agents of the people pulling the levers of power — who were white guys.”

Part of that history unmasks a law enforcement agency, which was willing to ignore, from the Civil War to the 1930s, those who committed murder in the form of lynching.

Part of that history reveals the truism that, while “similar agencies exist in other states, none of them have been around as long as the Rangers, and none of them, I believe, have the reputation of the Rangers.”

“There’s nobody,” Swanson says with a sigh, “like the Texas Rangers.”

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