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Why a park is the focus of border battle between Texas and the Biden administration

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Both President Biden and the former president, Donald Trump, visit Texas to head to the southern border with Mexico tomorrow. Biden goes to Brownsville. Trump heads for Eagle Pass and Shelby Park. Now, that's ground zero in the fight between Governor Greg Abbott and the Biden administration. In a challenge to federal authority, Abbott used an emergency order to take control of the city park and ban the U.S. Border Patrol from operating there. And as Texas Public Radio's David Martin Davies explains, the park's name is now part of the conflict.

DAVID MARTIN DAVIES, BYLINE: The gate to Eagle Pass' Shelby Park is now secured by members of the Texas National Guard and an armored Humvee. Also camped out there is 68-year-old Dan Chandler, who is sitting on the folded-down seat of his walker.

DAN CHANDLER: What I'm actually doing here is evangelizing.

DAVIES: Chandler sports a long, gray beard and a red Trump cap. Attached to his walker are posters railing against transgender people, abortion and one denying climate change. He also holds a Confederate battle flag - a flag, he points out, with a direct connection to Shelby Park.

CHANDLER: General Joe Shelby, at the end, was here in Texas. He actually wouldn't surrender.

DAVIES: Major General Joseph Orville Shelby was a decorated Confederate cavalry officer and a fierce defender of slavery. But when the South lost its war to keep slavery, Shelby and his troops refused to surrender to Union forces. Instead, he and about a thousand of his followers fled into Mexico. And Chandler says, legend has it, Shelby even refused to give up the flag.

CHANDLER: Shelby came here with his Confederates. They crossed the Rio Grande. They even took the Confederate battle flag, wrapped it around a rock, and sunk it in the Rio Grande.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: From the bloody battlefields of the war between the states...

DAVIES: The story earned Shelby the moniker The Undefeated, which was also the name of the 1969 movie very loosely based on his story, starring John Wayne and Rock Hudson.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE UNDEFEATED")

JOHN WAYNE: (As Col. John Henry Thomas) Why did you come clear out here to continue a war that ended months ago in Virginia?

ROCK HUDSON: (As Col. James Langdon) Because I'm a stubborn man. Does that satisfy you?

DAVIES: The story of General Shelby was regularly celebrated in Eagle Pass. There were reenactments. But now, local activists want to change the name of Shelby Park.

JUANITA MARTINEZ: It should not be named after a coward and a traitor.

DAVIES: Juanita Martinez, the Democratic Party chair here, says Governor Abbott has basically stolen the city park for his anti-migrant Operation Lone Star.

MARTINEZ: We may not get into the park, but maybe - maybe - we can change the name.

JESSIE FUENTES: We should name the park after a Union general.

DAVIES: That's Eagle Pass resident Jessie Fuentes. He says changing the park's name could send a powerful message.

FUENTES: My favorite general that comes to mind from the Union side, of course, is Ulysses Grant. So I would say name the park, I'm a Grant Park. I'm a Grant Park would mean immigrant park.

DAVIES: Fuentes admits that name could be too much to ask, but he and others are workshopping other names, like Peace Park or People's Park.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

DAVIES: Back at Shelby Park's gate, Dan Chandler, a Trump supporter, says leave the name alone. It's history, he says, and it's repeating itself.

CHANDLER: It's 1861 right now. If you're on that side of Governor Abbott, like 25 states - in Georgia and Florida and Alaska and the Russians - we're all Confederates.

DAVIES: He and others believe it's no coincidence Abbott is challenging the power of the federal government at the same place some call the grave of the Confederacy.

For NPR News, I'm David Martin Davies in Eagle Pass, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Martin Davies