/How song rooted in racism sparked power struggle

How song rooted in racism sparked power struggle


Traditions can be wonderful things. Family members opening one gift each on Christmas Eve, using the servingware passed down for generations at Thanksgiving dinner, sorority members gathering at their alma mater every year — they’re things that bind us together.

But some traditions aren’t as warm and welcoming as others.

The University of Texas seems to have a growing problem on its hands when it comes to the school song, “The Eyes of Texas.” What began early in the summer as a renewed movement by Longhorn athletes to do away with the song has spread beyond athletics and, not surprisingly, has led to something of a power struggle between the athletics director and football coach Tom Herman.

Which has led to those most impacted being shoved to the side.

Texas athletes demanded song change

Over the months since the callous killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police, athletes at the amateur and professional levels have used their platforms to not only assert in no uncertain terms that Black lives matter, but to push for improvements and reforms aimed at creating a more just country.

It was no different in Austin.

In mid-June, athletes at the school posted a thoughtful letter on social media accounts detailing a list of changes they wanted to see on campus, expressing a desire to “hold the athletic department and university to a higher standard by not only asking them to keep their promise of condemning racism on our campus, but to go beyond this by taking action to make Texas more comfortable and inclusive for the Black athletes and Black community that has so fervently supported this program.”

Among the list: changing the name of buildings on campus, such as Robert Lee Moore Hall, named for a mathematics professor so devoted to racism he refused to allow Black students in his classes even after UT was integrated (his name has since been removed); replacing and adding on-campus statues; and adding a permanent exhibit at the Longhorns Athletics Hall of Honor highlighting the achievements of Black athletes.

Those requests are mostly topical, which is why the university moved pretty quickly to meet them.

The last request on athletes’ list, though, has become a problem. It was to get rid of “The Eyes of Texas” and replace it with a song that doesn’t have the same racist undertones — or, at minimum, to lift the requirement that all athletes sing the song when it is played at sporting events.

‘The Eyes of Texas’ is rooted in racism

If you don’t know “The Eyes” and its origins, you’re not alone. A quick lesson: in 1899, University president William Prather, in an address to students at the opening of the school year, paraphrased words he’d heard Robert E. Lee say while Prather was a student at Washington College in Virginia.

“The eyes of the South are upon you,” Prather said. “Forward, young men and women of the University, the eyes of Texas are upon you!” It became Prather’s catchphrase.

So that’s the first strike against it — the genesis of the song comes from Lee, the commander of the Confederate Army, a traitor and racist fighting for states who wanted to keep enslaving Africans they’d stolen from ancestral homelands.

A few years later, a UT student and band member named Lewis Johnson was bothered that his group mostly played other schools’ songs. Texas needed one, and Johnson decided to write it. He and a classmate, John Sinclair, came up with one but they felt something was missing, so they set it aside.

Then one day Sinclair was struck by inspiration, wrote a poem that relied heavily on Prather’s “eyes of Texas” gambit, and set the words to, of all things, the children’s song “I’ve been working on the railroad.”

Pleased at their effort, they decided to debut their song at the annual campus minstrel show in May 1903.

Yes, the annual campus minstrel show. Where white students usually performed in blackface.

So that’s strike two. And in this game, that’s enough to get the song out.

Or it would be, if UT leaders were actually committed to making the campus as inclusive as possible for all of its students. This isn’t the first time students have asked to replace “The Eyes.” There have been two other efforts over the last 10 years, neither of which gained much traction

AUSTIN, TX - SEPTEMBER 21: Longhorn band in good form during the NCAA football game between Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Texas Longhorns held September 21, 2019 at the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin TX. (Photo by Allan Hamilton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)AUSTIN, TX - SEPTEMBER 21: Longhorn band in good form during the NCAA football game between Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Texas Longhorns held September 21, 2019 at the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin TX. (Photo by Allan Hamilton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Texas Longhorn Band at a 2019 game. (Photo by Allan Hamilton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

UT officials won’t change their tune

Despite a reckoning with the racist foundations and persistently racist systems of this country in many corners, the university has said it won’t get rid of the song, and athletics director Chris Del Conte is siding with deep-pocketed boosters over football coach Tom Herman and the school’s Black athletes and teammates and classmates that support them.

In early June, Herman marched with his players, coaches and other staff from campus to the Texas capitol, where they and others kneeled for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time officer Derek Chauvin casually kneeled on Floyd’s neck, slowly killing him. After the protest, Herman told the players: “You’re a minority football player at one of the biggest brands in the country. You have a voice. Use it.”

Not long after, the letter appeared on social media, written by athletes across several sports and backed by some of the school’s most famous athletic alums.

Del Conte didn’t hire Herman, and Herman’s tenure thus far with the Longhorns has been uneven (though his massive contract buyout makes it hard to fire him). Del Conte also needs money to pay for a stadium renovation project and has to keep boosters happy to make sure the checks pledged and needed to complete the project are written later this year.

For his part, Herman isn’t forcing players to participate when the song is played. Del Conte, however, wants players at minimum to stand for “The Eyes” as a show of respect and appreciation for the team’s fans.

Here’s the thing: Respect is a two-way street. If the administration and boosters don’t respect Black students enough to change a song with racist origins set to the tune of a little kids’ song and boosters threaten to withhold money if those players won’t sing a song, why should the players be pressured to sing or stand for a song to “honor” those same people? It’s a song. As Allen Iverson might paraphrase, we’re not talking about the games, not the games, we talkin’ bout a song.

It’s the thing we’ve seen again and again and again: So-called fans will cheer for Black athletes, but can’t be bothered to see their humanity. At Texas’ flagship state university, Black students make up just 4 percent of the total student population despite making up roughly 13 percent of the state’s population, but a 2013 study found that nearly 70 percent of the football and men’s basketball teams were Black men — it’s hard to think that number has changed much in the seven years since.

But it’s not just the athletes: On Wednesday, The Daily Texan reported that about half of the members of the Longhorn Band said in an internal survey that they would not play “The Eyes” and would not perform at Saturday’s game against Baylor. University president Jay Hartzell said the band was never expected to play at the game this weekend.

Funny enough, this is Free Speech Week at UT, celebrating “a commitment to free speech and demonstrate how diverse perspectives are welcomed on campus and are integral to the educational environment.”

Unless you want to discuss getting rid of “The Eyes.” That will not be celebrated.

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