Highwaymen: Frank Hamer and a modern culture that resists redemption

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Frank Hamer Redemption

A WaPo op-ed about The Highwaymen’s retelling of Frank Hamer’s hunt for Bonnie and Clyde speaks volumes about how Leftists reject the idea of redemption.

Last night, I got around to watching Netflix’s The Highwaymen, which follows former Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault as they hunt down criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. It is an excellent production. Visually, the movie is beautiful, with meticulous attention to sets and costumes. The acting is also extremely good, with Kevin Costner as a somewhat tortured Hamer and Woody Harrelson as Hamer’s conscience and sidekick.

Unlike the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde movie, with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, this movie does not glamorize or romanticize Bonnie and Clyde. Instead, we see them in small vignettes that reveal only how addicted they were to killing, especially killing law enforcement. Hamer and Gault, whom Costner and Harrelson do a marvelous job of portraying, are anything but romantic. They’re old and grumpy, they can’t shoot straight, and their bladders aren’t what they used to be — but they’re also wily, experienced, and dogged trackers whose knowledge and instincts outweigh all the “new wave” technology available in 1934.

If you’d like to read a full review of the movie, I recommend Kyle Smith at National Review. I’ll just quote here what he wrote about the movie’s moral center, which was part of what made it so watchable for me:

Retelling Bonnie and Clyde from the point of view of the actual heroes of the story is a superb idea that took far too long to come to screen. Hired by the governor of Texas, “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates), aging ex-Rangers Frank Hamer (Costner) and Maney Gault (Harrelson) are given a special mandate to end a reign of terror that left 13 people dead, yet was celebrated as a romantic tale of sexy desperadoes who were folk heroes to the newspapers of the Great Depression and later easily adapted into symbols of Sixties liberation.

Channeling Hamer’s rage and disgust, The Highwaymen attacks the myth of Bonnie and Clyde, who are seen only in glimpses. Far from robbing banks on behalf of hapless victims of the Depression, the Barrow gang mostly stuck to soft targets such as gas stations and grocery stores. Yet ordinary Americans were enthralled by the rebel legends and are seen concealing information to cover for the killers — though they were cheap, vicious cowards who would do anything for a buck. Governor Ferguson (Kathy Bates) replies to reporters pushing the Robin Hood narrative, “Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant in the head for four dollars and a tank of gas?”

John Fusco’s shrewd and meditative script has fun trolling Bonnie and Clyde: The scene in the earlier film in which Bonnie dramatically reads aloud her poem about her life and anticipated death inspires a scene in which Hamer and Gault consider the same poem and note that it’s moronic. “Used to be, you had to have talent to get published. Now you just have to shoot people,” notes Gault. In another scene Gault just about has Clyde in his sights when the bandit’s car is suddenly mobbed by adoring fans.

Rather than talk anymore about the ins and outs of the movie, I want to talk about the ins and outs of victimhood and the modern Left’s resistance to redemption. As we’ve seen repeatedly in the drama’s played out across politics and social media, to the Left, apologizing for your sin is mandatory, but you’ll still never be allowed to move beyond that sin.

The real starting point for this post, therefore, is an opinion piece that Monica Muñoz Martinez wrote for the Washington Post. In case you’re wondering who Martinez is, the article’s bio identifies her as “the Stanley J. Bernstein assistant professor of American studies at Brown University, author of “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas,” and cofounder of the nonprofit organization Refusing to Forget.” As her book’s title book indicates, Martinez’s career is based upon neither forgiving nor forgetting racism in Texas, no matter when it occurred. It’s also worth noting that her WaPo article, published on March 31, has already had a wide reach, for it immediately became a part of the Wikipedia canon for both J.T. Canales, a Texas legislator early in the century, and Hammer himself.

The point of Martinez’s article is that neither the Texas Rangers nor Hamer should be celebrated. According to her (and I have no reason to doubt her facts), the Rangers were constituted as a quasi-military force on behalf of Anglo-American following Texas’s 1836 declaration of independence from Mexico. The Rangers then morphed into an official law enforcement entity that brutally and racially policed the wild and dangerous State of Texas.

Thus, Martinez argues that the Rangers weren’t just police, they were a racist paramilitary organization that enforced Jim Crow laws, consistent with Texas’s confederate past, and what she calls “Juan Crow” laws, consistent with both ongoing hostility to Mexico and general racism against non-whites.

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By 1918, things were so bad that Hispanic State Representative José T. Canales (the only Hispanic representative at the time in Texas) petitioned to start an investigation against the Rangers. When it finally took place, in 1919, the investigation saw 83 witnesses show up to testify against the Rangers, and the hearing committee concluded that the Rangers were guilty of misconduct and “unwarranted disregard of the rights of citizenship.”

According to Martinez (and again, I don’t doubt her), Hamer was no innocent. As even the movie acknowledges, the Rangers’ brand of law-and-order included more out-in-the-field executions than arrests. Martinez especially faults Hamer for posing in 1915 for picture postcards next to the corpses of four Hispanic men (presumably “wanted” men). These postcards, says Martinez, “circulated widely and were effective methods of racial intimidation.” I’m sure they were. Selling photos of dead criminals was also par for the course at the time, so this data point shouldn’t be used to identify Hamer as an unusual moral reprobate by the standards of his time. (Please stick around for my discussion at the end of this post about the standards of ones time.)

The more serious accusation Martinez levels against Hamer is that he tried to threaten Canales into stopping the investigation into the Rangers. Martinez describes Hamer’s conduct as follows:

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.

You can read a longer description of Hamer’s alleged misconduct here. I don’t know the provenance of the article, but as with Martinez’s narrative, I have no reason to doubt it.

It appears that, in 1919 and before, Hamer was a rough, wild man who had no problem with killing those he deemed criminal. (I’m careful with my phrasing here, because there’s no evidence that Hamer was a racist or that the men he killed weren’t in fact criminals, regardless of race.) It also appears that Hamer, to defend his beloved Rangers, had no problem stooping to illegal and violent tactics.

Bad Hamer! Bad!

The interesting thing, though, which is something Martinez does not acknowledge, is that Hamer after 1919 was truly a law and order type, who protected all citizens, not just white ones. This is from Wikipedia (hyperlinks and footnotes omitted):

In the 1920s, Hamer became known for bringing order to oil boom towns such as Mexia and Borger. Records from that time indicate that there were complaints about some of Hamer’s methods, but the same sources said the area was so lawless that extreme measures may have been needed. “In I’m Frank Hamer,” Hamer was quoted discussing the restrictions that upstanding citizens would seek to put on a lawman. He said they did not understand that they were in effect asking him to fight with one hand tied behind his back.

Beginning in 1922 Hamer, as senior captain of the Texas Rangers, led the fight in Texas against the Ku Klux Klan, which was still growing in Texas. During his long career, he saved fifteen African Americans from lynch mobs. In 1930 in Sherman, Texas, Hamer and a handful of Rangers protected a black rape suspect from a mob of 6,000. Hamer personally shot and wounded two of the mob’s leaders, and forced the lynchers to flee the courthouse. However, the mob set fire to the courthouse and the prisoner died in the inferno. Hamer was the first and only Texas Ranger to lose a prisoner to a lynch mob.

In 1928 Hamer put a halt to a murder for hire ring, and his extraordinary means of accomplishing this made him nationally famous. The Texas Bankers’ Association had begun offering rewards of $5,000 “for dead bank robbers—not one cent for live ones.” Hamer determined that men were setting up deadbeats and two-bit outlaws to be killed by complicit police officers; the officers would collect the rewards and pay the men their finder’s fees. But his investigation hit a stone wall: the police refused him support and the Bankers’ Association’s position was that “any man that could be induced to participate in a bank robbery ought to be killed.” Spurred by urgency to thwart the next set of killings, as well as personally infuriated, Hamer wrote and signed a detailed exposé of the racket, which he termed “the bankers’ murder machine.” He took his article to the press room of the State Capitol and handed out copies. His revelation about the racket resulted in public outrage, an investigation, and indictments. The bankers did not modify the terms of the reward, however, and more bounty murders took place in 1930.

As I noted above, there’s no indication in Martinez’s narrative that Hamer was a racist, rather than simply a shoot-first law-and-order guy in a racist world. But even if he was a racist before 1919, the Wikipedia narrative indicates that, by the 1920s, Hamer had changed his ways and become a protector of the innocent, no matter their race. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that matters when we weigh a man in the balance over the course of his whole life.

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Moreover — and please correct me if I’m wrong — the same can be said for the Texas Rangers. In the institution’s early years, it probably was mad, bad, and dangerous, but my sense is that the Rangers as reconstituted in the 1930s and after were as decent a law enforcement agency as any in America. Yes, I have no doubt that individual Rangers, and even the entire institution, reflected negative values of the time, but that doesn’t mean that redemption doesn’t apply to the Rangers as well.

Here’s that “standards of the day” talk I promised: I’m going to pull back for a minute and talk about something I know, which is anti-Semitism. I read a lot of 19th and early 20th century English books. Except for George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, a genuinely philo-Semitic book, without exception the British authors, when they mention Jews, are unpleasant about them.

This stereotyped negativity ranges from Charles Dicken’s truly foul Fagin, a loathsome descendant of Shylock, to Dorothy Sayers’ ham-handed attempts to be nice to Jews in Whose Body?. Jews are greasy, they lisp, they’re greedy, they take social liberties, they are the eternal “other.” These authors present pure anti-Semitism, that’s true, but what’s important is that it’s not Nazi anti-Semitism. The British were sneering, condescending, unkind thing, but they were not genocidal. In this regard, the Brits of old were better than the Brits today, whose support for Hamas and hostility to Israel is genocidal and utterly beyond forgiveness without some serious remorse, repentance, and redemption.

In other words, history gives context to things. You have to look at people by the standards of the day and determine whether they represented the norm, or were better or worse than the norm. If the norm was “meh,” we’re grateful we’ve evolved beyond it. If they were better than that, we celebrate them; and if they were worse even than the lower moral standards of the day, we can feel free to hate them unreservedly. That’s why Nazis are reviled, but we can still tolerate Brits of old, despite their stereotypes and sneers.

Back to Hamer now: We should certainly take issue with the foul conduct of the Rangers before 1919, as well as with Hamer’s thuggish conduct at the same time. Nevertheless, I believe we err profoundly if we refuse to accept that both people and institutions can repent, reform, and redeem themselves. That’s what Hamer seems to have done, and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the skills he brought to bringing to an end the criminal reign of an exceptionally corrupt duo.

Repentence and redemption should be rewarded, which is something Leftists, including Ms. Martinez, simply will not do. Going back to the cultural revolution in China, don’t forget that the only thing granted those who confessed at re-education camps was the right not to be killed. No matter their forced confessions and subsequent reformed behavior, they were never forgiven. That’s the Leftist way.

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About Bookworm 1138 Articles
Bookworm came late to conservativism but embraced it with passion. She's been blogging since 2004 at Bookworm Room about anything that captures her fancy -- and that's usually politics. Her blog's motto is "Conservatives deal with facts and reach conclusions; liberals have conclusions and sell them as facts."