University of Texas Defied Trends by Stepping Back to Consider Merits in "Eyes of Texas" Controversy
By Mark Schipper
The Eyes of Texas, a cultural pillar at the Lone Star State's flagship university, and a song with tenuous linkages to an extinct form of racially degrading entertainment, appears to have beat back a campaign meant to relegate its place at the school to the dustbin of history.
The well-known song, which is deeply ingrained into the social and athletic pageantry at the University of Texas, was written in 1903 by student John Sinclair. Sinclair had been editor of The Cactus yearbook at a time when Texas was a segregated, all-white university, and the song he wrote was debuted at a minstrel show in Austin.
Texas, for its part, would not integrate its university until it was forced to in 1950—like so many schools across the South—by order of the United States Supreme Court. The football team would not dress its first black varsity athlete until 1970, six years after the all-white Southwestern Conference had been integrated against its will by Southern Methodist University. A large statue of that athlete, Julius Whittier, stands now outside the north end zone at Darrel K. Royal Memorial Stadium.
It must also be noted that work is underway on a permanent on-campus tribute to Heman Sweatt, the student who compelled Texas to integrate when he carried his challenge to their admission policies all the way to the nation’s top court. The move to honor Sweatt has come as part of a larger redress package from the university following the battle over the school’s song.
But it is the nature of the battle over the old song, and the forces aligned for and against it, that represent a microcosm of the historical moment playing out across the United States. In this case it was the measured response from the University of Texas—stepping out from the fog of war to get a clean look at the merits before taking any drastic action—that has been unique.
“Step one is to get the truth out. That I think is largely our starting point,” said University of Texas President Jay Hartzell in reference to the twenty-four person committee empaneled by the university to investigate the song's history.
“I think we’ve taken an interesting, I think, visionary approach, which is to sort of grapple with the difficulty,” said Doctor Richard Reddick, a Texas alumnus and associate dean at the university, who chaired the committee. “These are complexities that don’t really lend themselves to a simple, binary, yes-no, for-against kind of thing. It’s circumstantial, it depends on the context.”
The primary driver in this fight is the expanding influence of a secular, but religious-like belief in a poisoned-roots concept—an original sin built into a thing’s DNA—amongst activist groups and their amplifiers in popular media. The heart of the matter, in every one of these face-offs, is over which side gets to determine guilt or innocence and, as a consequence, which side gets to execute their sentence. It is at its core a pure power play and a showdown over cultural force.
THE 'EYES' HAS BEEN HERE BEFORE
Multiple groups have attempted to kick out the pedestal beneath The Eyes of Texas, with networks of activists working to change the context of the argument back to the song's creation in 1903, as opposed to the space it occupies in contemporary culture. The earlier movements never generated more than a low-wattage newspaper piece or news segment, followed by a short, generally hostile dialogue between the camps that concluded at the status quo ante every time.
But after an extended period of quiet on that front the controversy was heated to critical mass by a fresh wave of activists operating in a hyper-partisan media landscape in the early summer of 2020. As protests, marches, and riots went off across the country following the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, the effort to retire The Eyes of Texas rose to unprecedented levels of intensity.
During those emotional, sometimes dangerous and destructive, months, a reserve defensive lineman in Texas's program named Marquez Bimage posted to Twitter a list of demands for the university's administration to satisfy, including that The Eyes of Texas be scrapped. Attached to the ultimatums was a threat claiming Longhorns' football players would refuse to participate in any recruiting or alumni activities until redress had been made. Bimage claimed to be speaking on behalf of all the student-athletes at the university, an assertion that was exposed as wildly inaccurate, if not an outright invention, shortly after the demands were published on social media.
Several Longhorns’ athletes across multiple sports did re-tweet Bimage’s platform in the days following its publication, and a modest-sized group of football players had walked off the field without singing the song after the first two home games of the season. But as of March 2021, nine months after the demands were introduced, the tweet’s statistics show some 300 re-tweets and around 1,200 total likes, a small fraction of the university's student body, its nearly 700 athletes, and an infinitesimal percentage of the state's population.
Despite the light support outside of a small core of protestors, the university felt compelled to stop sending the marching band to football games after an internal survey revealed “an insufficient amount of instrumentation” available to play the school's songs. According to the report, an unspecified but substantial number of band members had claimed they would refuse to play The Eyes of Texas when told to do so. In place of the live band, an essential piece of any college-football Saturday, a recording of the track was played over the stadium’s speaker system.
A second petition to abolish the song, organized and published by an independent group of Texas students, did not fair much better than Bimage's demands. Nearly a year after blasting a notice to the entire university community, state of Texas, and the country at large, the petition shows around 1,600 signatories in favor retiring the music. Assuming every signature was made by a Texas student, a highly unlikely scenario at best, the number would comprise around three percent of the school’s current enrollment and far less of the university’s nearly five-hundred thousand active alumni.
The student population at the University of Texas currently is more than 50,000, while the population of the state itself is fast approaching thirty-million people. With 1,200 Twitter likes and 1,600 signatures on the petition, the combined 2,800 favorable responses overwhelmingly suggest that Bimage’s initial message, and the students’ follow up, were exceptionally un-popular both on the campus and in the state, generally.
The news media, on the other hand, overwhelmingly ignored or covered up that critical context as it published dozens of local pieces and national articles on the confrontation. Those stories almost uniformly positioned the groups calling for the abolishment of the song as the dominant forces both on campus and across the country, while framing the resistance to those calls for change as a rear guard action by regressive forces insensitive to racial issues.
Bimage’s list became part of a larger conversation about the past and future going on across the United States, and a situation the university was compelled to address as emails to the administration and chatter across social media went berserk. But after posting his demands, Bimage opted out of the 2020 football season because of Covid-19 concerns, and then transferred out of the program to play his final year of eligibility elsewhere.
He has not offered his reasons for transferring but a lack of playing time likely was near the top. Bimage's usage, both before and after delivering his ultimatum, was minimal.
The Eyes of Texas
The song itself, which we have only alluded to but not examined, is being engaged and attacked by its detractors on essentially every front. The cancellation calls start with the song's melody and stop amidst the cultural-entertainment situation of the 1840s.
In creating the tune of the song the yearbook editor, John Sinclair, had done what musicians all over the world do with folk-style music, which is repurpose it to fit a new situation. He had uncoupled the famous melody from I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, also known as the Levee Song, and hitched it to new lyrics lampooning the university's turn-of-the-century president, William Lambdin Prather.
What most do not know, and therefore never consider when listening to the original, is that I’ve Been Working on the Railroad was first a minstrel song penned by white students at Princeton University in 1894. The lyrics described the difficult lives of paid black laborers at the Southern railroad and levee camps in the late 1800s, and was sung in a regional dialect.
The Minstrel Show, banished now seven decades, was a unique-American form of mass entertainment that became hugely popular in the 1840s. The shows often featured white performers got up in the infamous “Black Face” costume, performing degrading skits in a satirical fashion after the manner of black Americans.
While they were considered an acceptable part of the entertainment industry then, with troops of black minstrels also touring and performing for money—they are rightly looked back on as monstrosities of the past. To see a historical representation of minstrelsy in the context of the twenty-first century is to be shocked by the open and flagrant racism embodied in the form. They are dehumanizing, morally unjustifiable entertainments, and rightly consigned to places like museums where they can be used to teach people what not to do, and how not to be.
So the cancel group’s opening salvo against the song can be boiled down to this: The melody of the Eyes of Texas is forever racist because of its minstrel beginnings at Princeton, despite the new lyrics and the totally unrelated context. Whether or not people know the history of the original or ever think of it is not the point. The melody itself, they say, has been poisoned by its original sin.
The second attack also is in the nature of a tangential connection, this time to a disgraced historical figure in the former Confederate maximum-General Robert E. Lee. Texas President Prather was famous for firing off the phrase, “The eyes of Texas are upon you,” particularly when he had occasion to address convocations of students.
It was Prather's customized admonition to do good in the world and make Texas proud because, as the state’s flagship university, the tax payers funding the institution expected important things to germinate from its campus. The modest slogan of the true Longhorn has it that, “What starts here changes the world,” and Prather’s phrase is in the family of that tradition.
But there are multiple competing origin stories attached to that expression. Prather had spread the original and his daughter, Mary Lee Prather, had codified it in a piece run at the Dallas Morning News in 1926. According to the daughter, her father had debuted it in 1899, the very first time he addressed Texas students as their president.
In President Prather’s telling, General Lee had been in Virginia in 1864 inspecting a body of Texas soldiery set to fight in the so-called Battle of the Wilderness against the Union forces of General Ulysses S. Grant and Robert Meade. As Lee prepared to inspect the troops the officer in charge of the unit had called out: “Forward, men of Texas, the eyes of General Lee are upon you.” The stylish euphonics of the expression had caught the ear of Prather, and he modified it to fit his command at the university.
But several other well-established stories tell it another way. Prather had attended college at Washington University in Virginia—known today as Washington and Lee—where the disgraced general somehow landed after his defeat during the Civil War. There, Prather heard Lee employing a similar phrase to admonish students at university assemblies. “The eyes of the South” were on them, Lee would say, so go forth and excel in the wake of the calamity and destruction wrought by the late Civil War.
Given the ensuing decades of Ku Klux Klan violence, legalized segregation across the South, and brutally enforced Jim Crow Laws (named after another minstrel song of the ante-bellum period), some have inserted a sinister implication to Lee's phrase. It is very true that the ugly, bitter fight to prevent the integration and extension of full rights to black Southerners—a battle that compelled American presidents to send federal troops back into the South to protect black children from violence, are hideous to behold in the history books. But there is absolutely no way to say that's what Lee had meant by his phrase.
But, in a highly provocative twist, when the twenty-four person committee empaneled by the university returned with the results of their investigation, the group reported they had not been able to pin down historical evidence that Lee had uttered the phrase either during the Civil War, or been fond of it at Washington University. While it always was a second-degree connection at best—because Prather would have altered either version to change the context and meaning—it appears it may have been an apocryphal connection all along, which certainly would make this part of the issue less thorny.
The activist's second charge can be boiled down to this: Robert E. Lee was an unrepentant, slave-owning racist who, rather than renounce the old ways in the South (which he'd admitted in private letters he knew must end) and lead the Union Army during the Civil War, Lee had abandoned his country to fight for the preservation of the Slave Republic. He was a traitor to his country, to the military academy at West Point where he'd trained, and a villain. Any utterance he'd made—even a modified one—is permanently stained by the reality of his existence and unfit for mainstream culture.
The third problem raised by the activists makes the most direct connection to an uncomfortable historical reality, which the university committee also acknowledged in their report. The tune itself had debuted in 1903 at the Hancock Opera House in Austin during the Varsity Minstrel Show, with the house rake being used to fund Longhorns' athletics. White students, being educated on a segregated campus, and costumed in black face for the show, had sung the song for a full house and almost immediately afterward it became a major hit across campus—even though it was no longer performed in black face.
The show that night had not had any cruel intentions beyond those contained in minstrelsy itself, meaning the costumes were worn as a matter of form and not in connection to the song. And the song itself, its lyrics and purpose, are not race-based in any way. To claim a racial connotation to the Eyes of Texas lyrics, as some have, is to move beyond the purview of fact and into the realm of abstract metaphorical meaning.
While the minstrel side of the performance in 1903 appears to be a fairly direct connection to a racially uncomfortable origin, the song sung today is at least one step removed from the piece that debuted that night at the Hancock Opera House. And this brings us back to Texas President Prather and the satire he was being targeted with during that performance.
Again, Prather’s daughter gave the play by play in her Dallas Morning News piece. The scene at the Varsity show had opened with a tattered man decked out in the attire of Texas A&M University, the Longhorn’s bitter in-state rival. He carried a beat-up grip and was waiting for transportation. When asked what he was doing, the tattered man explained he had a Boll Weevil, a local insect that destroyed cotton crops, tucked into his case and was taking it to see the president of Texas.
Why take it to the president? he is asked. Because, he says, he wants the president to tell the bug the Eyes of Texas were on him, believing as a consequence the bug either would be encouraged to be a better Boll Weevil or go away because he was going to be destroyed.
The joke is not bad. The president is so fond of his pet phrase he would literally remind an insect belonging to the school’s hated rival that he was being watched and expected to do better. The fact that an Aggie would be dumb enough to want this for an insect is, for a Longhorn, another part of the joke.
But the main point is more important. The song had been satirical when it was written, mocking a university president with his own overused slogan. But that version of the song had been altered almost immediately into a serious call for the Longhorns’ congregation to be better, to do better in the world, and as a warning to athletic opponents that they had been targeted for defeat on the fields of friendly strife.
The activist's third objection can be whittled down to one sharp point: The original song debuted at a black-face minstrel performance and cannot be separated from that origin story. To them it makes no difference that minstrelsy is long gone, or that people would not know the song's first appearance unless they made a fairly serious historical inquiry, or even that the lyrics do not have any racial connotations. The song is poisoned at the roots, they say and, therefore, must be uprooted.
Former Texas linebacker Brian Jones, an All-Southwest Conference player in 1990 and well-known television analyst, addressed this point when he proposed a compromise. Jones's idea involved re-purposing the song again, or kind of amplifying a meaning that had always been there.
Jones, writing at CBS Sports, spoke of his love for the alma mater, the singing of it, and the feeling of unity it gave him both with teammates and University of Texas family around the world. Jones's description, for what it's worth, matches the one given by nearly every Longhorns’ fan and alumni when describing the significance of the song in their lives. It is nothing but positive and nothing but togetherness. Minstrel shows from 1903 have quite literally no place in their conversations.
When Jones found out there was an old connection to black face—something he had not known for the first nearly five decades of his life—he too felt for a moment the song had been blighted.
“But upon further reflection, I am not convinced that the lyrics are essentially racist,” wrote Jones. “Therefore, I propose an enhancement to their request [to abolish the song] and encourage them to call, instead, for a transformation.”
Jones elaborated on his suggestion.
“Traditionally, the lyric, ‘The Eyes of Texas are upon you, you cannot get away,’ has been a warning to athletic opponents who will not escape the relentless attention of Longhorns athletes in their pursuit of victory. Going forward, I invite these athletes and challenge my fellow UT alumni to reconsider this fight song as an anthem of accountability. With a unified call for justice, we can change the message so that Longhorns the world over will now be pledging their eternal vigilance on issues of equality.”
Jones concluded his piece by clarifying he was not proposing the Burnt Orange crowd become some sort of racism police, but instead advocates for the right social values, and inspirational role models based on their conduct and core beliefs. Citing the song’s final lines, when the archangel Gabriel blows his horn, Jones said an old struggle could be brought to a heavenly conclusion on earth if everyone refused to let injustice go unchallenged.
THE MAINSTREAM POSITION
The giant mass of humanity against the forced retirement of the school’s famous song, on the other side, constitutes an overwhelming majority of both the university’s student population and its colossal fan base. This community is so large and loyal to Longhorns’ athletics, in particular the football program, that Texas annually is the highest earning and wealthiest athletic department in the country, raking in more than two-hundred-twenty-million dollars a year, a number that seems to rise annually.
Based on the available reports, which continue going live as media outlets demand public records and personal identities of those fighting to preserve the song—whether to publicly shame and potentially harm them, or for more benign reasons—it appears most of the university’s administration, its board of regents, alumni and, perhaps most importantly, big-money boosters, are fervently in favor of keeping the alma mater.
A growing list of heavy-hitting donors has in fact threatened to stop pouring cash into the athletic department’s accounts, or supporting its teams through season tickets, if the university backs down and submits to the intense, but small-scale activist and media pressure over the song.
"My wife and I have given an endowment in excess of $1 million to athletics. This could very easily be rescinded if things don’t drastically change around here," one typical donor e-mail to the university read. "Has everyone become oblivious of who supports athletics??"
The chairman of the university’s Board of Regents, Kevin P. Eltife, published a statement in support of the alma mater, presumably with the weight of the board behind him.
"The Eyes of Texas has been UT Austin’s official school song for almost 120 years. It has been performed at most official events —celebratory or solemn—and sung by proud alumni and students for generations as a common bond of the UT family. It is a longstanding symbol of The University’s academic and athletic achievements in its pursuit of excellence,” wrote Eltife.
But assembled well clear of the campus and media battleground sites the university itself impaneled a twenty-four person committee, as diverse in race, gender, and occupation as could be hoped for, and set off on a five-months investigation into the song and its origins. Several weeks ago they returned from their long inquiry and pronounced the alma mater, as far as their group was concerned, fit for public use.
While the committee frankly acknowledged a racist setting at the turn of the twentieth century in ante-bellum Texas, they found no racist intentions or even racial considerations were built into that particular song.
Following the publication of the committee’s findings and the university’s decision to keep the song centered in their repertoire, a group of black political leaders in Texas expressed their objection to the decision and pledged to stay in the fight.
“Removing the song is not too much to ask. If the song is changed, no one is harmed,” said Ron Reynolds, a representative from Texas's twenty-seventh district. “We, as the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, are against the continuation of The Eyes of Texas song. We're unequivocal about that.”
But beyond their small group, and the unpopular petition calling for the song’s removal, the matter appears resolved to the satisfaction of a large mixed majority, at least for the moment. The university has, in continuing its efforts toward a satisfying compromise, renamed its football field after two Longhorns’ legends in Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams, black running backs who won Heisman Trophies two decades apart and brought great national honor and glory to the university.
Outside the north end-zone section at DKR Memorial Stadium the aforementioned statue of Julius Whittier, the Longhorns' first black letterman, went up last November near the end of the 2020 season. These moves were greeted with widespread approval throughout the Longhorns’ community.
Alongside those new additions several on campus statues dedicated to men with connections to the disgraced Confederacy have been removed from the scene. Several buildings with the same problem also have been renamed as part of the compromise deal attached to the retention of the song. In addition to those changes, the university has pledged to create programs designed to actively recruit more black Americans to the University of Texas experience.
“The Eyes of Texas, in its current form, will continue to be our alma mater,” president Hartzell wrote to the Texas community. “Aspects of its origin, whether previously widely known or unknown, have created a rift in how the song is understood and celebrated, and that must be fixed. It is my belief that we can effectively reclaim and redefine what this song stands for by first owning and acknowledging its history in a way that is open and transparent.
“Together, we have the power to define what The Eyes of Texas expect of us, what they demand of us, and what standard they hold us to now. The Eyes of Texas should not only unite us, but hold all of us accountable to our institution’s core values. But we first must own the history.”
Texas is taking the approach of building on top of the old and ugly with the new and improved, a powerful symbolic action deployed throughout history to great effect. Many things that once belonged to an old ruling class, religion, or oligarchy, have simply been built over and re-appropriated by the new sheriff in town. From the Romans replacing the Greeks and their pantheon of gods in the ancient days, to the Germans reclaiming their country after the United States and Russia bombed the Nazi state out of existence in more recent times.
In critical ways that approach makes more rational sense than the contemporary, Savonarola-like fanaticism for cancelling, destroying, and outlawing everything that does not test out at one-hundred percent purity. If the rationale behind the destruction of the song was carried to its logical conclusion, the entire campus at Austin would have to be razed and re-built as a consequence of those ugly eras that came before and all those imperfect people who spent some ancient moment on her grounds.
When looked at from that perspective, it makes more sense to reclaim what no longer belongs to the dusty past and make them part of a better future. The best anyone can do with an immutable fact is to learn the right lessons from it, while declaring an open-ended war on invisible links to bygone days leads only to more strife, and less understanding, in the present.