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tags: Texas, University of Texas, Confederacy, football, minstrelsy, colleges and universities
The University of Texas insists that it is willing to confront its past racism and make sweeping changes for the sake of justice. What it won’t do is deal with the racist history of its school song.
Last summer, amid nationwide protests over George Floyd’s death in police custody, more than two dozen Texas football players and other athletes issued a list of demands aimed at making their school more welcoming. In response, administrators announced reforms to improve diversity on campus, to honor historically prominent Black athletes and other Black alumni, invest in recruiting Black students from underrepresented areas of Texas, and make Black students feel safer and more supported in general.
But the university refused one of the athletes’ demands: that it drop “The Eyes of Texas”—the campus anthem steeped in minstrelsy and Confederate nostalgia—and find a song “without racist undertones.” President Jay Hartzell announced that the university would retain the current song, which is played before and after football games, despite the discomfort it provokes in many athletes and marching-band members.
Football players who have spoken up against “The Eyes of Texas” have received a torrent of abuse. The Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, a junior who boycotted all team activities last summer until the university began addressing the athletes’ demands for equity, told me he has received “hundreds of threats” from fans. “They say, ‘You shouldn’t be here’; ‘Leave’; ‘I’m going to do this and that to you,’” he recalled. “They’ve called me all types of N-words, B-words.”
The university has been wrestling with the troubling nature of “The Eyes of Texas” for years. The song’s title was inspired by William Prather, a former University of Texas president whose catchphrase was “The eyes of Texas are upon you.” By his own account, Prather borrowed the expression from Robert E. Lee, who was fond of telling people, “The eyes of the South are upon you.” As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer has pointed out, the continued veneration of Lee—a Confederate general and slave owner—is a “key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one.”
Two of Prather’s students, Lewis Johnson and John L. Sinclair, used his version of Lee’s saying to create “The Eyes of Texas,” which they set to the folk tune “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”—another song with a troublingly racist history. In 1903, the two students premiered their song at an annual campus minstrel show, where white musicians performed it in blackface. It became a tradition at subsequent minstrel shows and was soon embedded in the university’s culture. Some people apparently want to keep it there forever.
Caden Sterns, a defensive back who declared for the NFL draft after last season, recently asserted on Twitter that influential alumni told several Texas football players they wouldn’t be able to find jobs in Texas if they didn’t sing the school song. That threat only steeled other players’ resolve. “When I heard that,” Overshown said of Sterns’s claim, “I knew right then and there that what we were doing was big. If you have to threaten somebody with that type of threat, [they’re] definitely doing something right.”
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