AUSTIN (KXAN) — The University of Texas at Austin’s alma mater “The Eyes of Texas” is once again in the eye of a controversial storm as Black leaders and some in the university community are coming together to officially denounce the school’s decision to continue using the song, which has roots in the Confederacy.

On Monday, several Black Texas elected officials, the Texas NAACP, several civil rights leaders as well as UT students and alumni held a press conference to officially announce their opposition and demand the school stop using the song. State Representative Ron Reynolds (who also serves as Vice-Chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus) said his colleagues from the caucus have already been in touch with UT and UT’s President Jay Hartzell about their concerns with the song.

Speakers who denounced the University of Texas at Austin’s decision to keep “The Eyes of Texas” song posed in front of the Texas Capitol following a press conference. March 29, 2021. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Earlier this month, UT released a report gathered by a 24-member team of students, athletes, employees and alumni who examined the song’s content, history and usage. The committee ultimately determined the “intent of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ was not overtly racist,” though they also acknowledged the song “debuted in a racist setting” at a minstrel show performance by white students in blackface.

But members of this group Monday suggested the committee’s report should not be used to “sanitize” or “justify” racism in the university’s history.

“It’s not enough to only acknowledge racism, we must abolish it,” said Anthony Collier on Monday. Collier is a UT law school student and president of the UT School of Law Student Bar Association. “I know change can be uncomfortable, but we will not sacrifice our humanity for your comfort.”

Throughout its history at UT Austin, but especially over the past year, the song has faced increasing calls for its retirement. As waves of social and racial justice reform protests reverberated across America in 2020 in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the song faced some of its harshest criticism.

“The Eyes of Texas” is most often heard before and after Texas Longhorns’ sporting events, including football games, and despite objections from alumni, students and many Black student-athletes, the school announced in July 2020 the song would continue. UT leaders have reiterated their intention to keep the song in the months since then.

Texas NAACP President Dr. Gary Bledsoe condemned the school’s continued use of the song despite its “humiliating impact on African-Americans.” Bledsoe said his group’s understanding is that UT Austin has indicated it’s open to reconsidering its decision to keep the song based on “new facts” if presented with them.

Bledsoe said Texas NAACP and the Texas Legislative Black Caucus plan to do just that.

Student demands

UT sophomore Zion James, the parliamentarian for UT’s Black Student Alliance, spoke on Monday and gave a list of demands for the school on behalf of the Black UT community (former, current and prospective):

  • Immediate retirement of “The Eyes of Texas”
  • Allocation of more financial aid and scholarships to Black students
  • Creating more affordable housing
  • Appointment of more Black professors and teacher’s assistants
  • Required trainings on race, anti-racism and UT’s racist history
  • Increased transparency between UT administration and students
  • Adopting equitable and inclusive practices in recruitment, selection and promotion of UT faculty
  • All buildings named after people with racist histories be renamed for people who have worked to make the UT community more equitable
Speakers at a press conference at the Texas Capitol denouncing the University of Texas at Austin’s decision to keep “The Eyes of Texas” song. From left to right UT Student Zion James, UT Professor Alberto Martinez, Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe. March 29, 2021. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

James concluded, saying: “I ask all who oppose these demands and the countless others we have: in 10 years, when people ask, ‘Where were you and how did you feel about this time that we’re in?‘ What side of history do you want to be on?”

Rep. Reynolds said UT President Jay Hartzell said it’s his intention for UT to keep the song “with the caveat that they were willing to continue to work to come up with other solutions, and the students named out some of their demands.”

He acknowledged that while the Texas Legislative Black Caucus is urging for the song’s removal right now, the university has given no indication so far this will happen.

“We want for the president to continue to be open and to reconsider eliminating the Eyes of Texas song, but in the meantime, working to continue to foster an environment where the other demands that the students made will be met,” Reynolds said. “They’ve already started doing some of those things, removing some of the [Confederate] monuments, changing some of the names [of buildings] there are some positive steps.”

In a statement to KXAN, UT Austin said it is looking forward “to working with members of the Legislature, our students and other stakeholders to continue to improve our campus, building on our recent all-time highs in minority enrollment and financial aid availability.”

“The university is committed to seeing through the initiatives started last summer and to looking for more ways to support our students,” a UT spokesperson said.

Impacts of the song continuing

Members of UT Austin’s Longhorn Band have remained divided about whether to perform the song. Back in September, the dean of UT’s College of Fine Arts said the band would be expected to perform “The Eyes of Texas.” But after band members objected to playing the song, the university continued to play the song at games without the band. UT acknowledged earlier this month band members were “currently involved in many conversations about ‘The Eyes of Texas.'”

“We are confident we can find solutions for band students who want to participate in the playing of the song and for those who do not,” UT Austin’s director of media relations said at the time.

UT has emphasized “it was never a requirement to sing the song,” though the Texas Tribune has reported Longhorn football players’ accounts that they were told they were required to sing the song.

“The football players were threatened and attacked online because of this, their careers were put at stake and a lot for them was put at stake,” Zion James noted.

FILE – In this Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, file photo, fans join in singing “The Eyes of Texas” after Texas defeated UTEP 59-3 in an NCAA college football game in Austin, Texas. The University of Texas’ long-awaited report on the history of the school song “The Eyes of Texas” found it had “no racist intent,” but the school will not require athletes and band members to participate in singing or playing it at games and campus events. The song had erupted in controversy in 2020 after some members of the football team demanded the school stop playing it because of racist elements in the song’s past. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

Judson Hayden, a saxophone player in the Longhorn Band, agreed students attending games are given the option of whether they want to sing the song or not.

“It’s interesting to me, because the university can say that, but will they protect the students who refuse to? And that’s the big question right?” Hayden continued.

“Because if I personally go to a football game and my instrument is not at my face whenever the song is being played, what are the implications for me? What is the university going to protect me? And like I said before, we still don’t know the answer to that,” he added.

KXAN asked UT what it will do to support students in the Longhorn Band or on athletic teams who do not wish to sing “The Eyes of Texas.”

UT responded in a statement, “We support all of our students.”

At the press conference Monday, Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe added, “it’s humiliating to be required to sit for the song or be present when the song is played. It’s not whether you have to sing the song or not. It is humiliating and denigrating to require you to be there while others sing and pay homage or honor to a racist song.”

‘Minstrel connections’

The university’s school spirit song was written in 1903 and was debated by the UT Student Government as recently as 2018.

In an April 2018 article for the school’s student newspaper, The Daily Texan, titled “The Eyes of Texas: Racist tradition or cornerstone of school spirit?”, the Vice Provost for Diversity Edmund T. Gordon said:

“The University of Texas, at least originally, had very clear minstrel connections. ‘The Eyes of Texas’ was first sung and played at a minstrel show which featured performers in blackface.”

Gordon explained the song was written during a period of lynchings and pervasive anti-Black sentiment — in addition to Jim Crow laws — and questioned whether the song could be about “minstrelsy” and school pride at the same time.

In an October 2018 article in The Daily Texan titled “UT must educate new students on racism of ‘The Eyes of Texas,’ author Maggie Lazaroski explained the author of the song, John Sinclair, was a member of the Varsity Minstrel Show, a performance group that “perpetuated the notion that African-Americans were lesser than whites.”

Dr. Ted Gordon has also hosted a “racial geography” tour at UT which discusses the history of The Eyes of Texas. The University’s College of Liberal Arts turned this tour into a 360 online video, which many students went on to cite in their opposition to the song in 2020.

‘The Eyes of Texas’ report

The 24-member group studying “The Eyes of Texas” wrote that while the song debuted in an overtly racist setting, they did not find evidence the song was written with overtly racist intent.

“The exclusion of Black students at that time presents an opportunity to think about how they and other communities of color have fought for inclusion and the work that remains to ensure all members of our community feel they belong,” the committee wrote.

The first performance of this song is believed to have happened in 1903 at a minstrel show in Austin. The committee was able to confirm this.

They believe the song was probably first performed by white students in blackface, though there is no photographic evidence of the initial performance. As committee chair, Professor Rich Reddick noted “the blackface thing, we are fairly certain what happened.”

AUSTIN, TEXAS – NOVEMBER 07: The Texas Longhorns stand for The Eyes of Texas after defeating the West Virginia Mountaineers at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on November 07, 2020 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

Bledsoe and others at the Monday event said the report should not be used as reason to allow the song.

“Let’s make it clear: the report issued by the 24-member committee should not be used to sanitize or justify a song that debuted in minstrel shows with lyrics that were embraced, because of lore that connected them to Confederate General Robert E. Lee,” Bledsoe said.

He argued the report is incomplete but also clearly highlights reasons for the school to abandon its alma mater.

“UT seems to think that because a song’s lyrics are not overtly racist, that’s there’s no harm, no foul,” Bledsoe said. “It’s unconscionable that UT officials have not thought about the matter from the impact of Black people… we will continue talks so they understand the impact and facts. Minstrels were performed to degrade and mock African-Americans as a form of entertainment for white people. That is as racist as it gets.”

‘Bigoted donors’

In early March, the Texas Tribune obtained emails sent by donors and alumni to UT President Jay Hartzell after a 2020 game when then-Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger stood alone on the field for the playing of the song, a post-game tradition.

The rest of the team left.

In the hundreds of emails to Hartzell, alumni and donors called the image of Ehlinger alone on the field “disgusting,” “embarrassing” and “disturbing.” They demanded the school stand up to “cancel culture” and firmly get behind the song — or else they would walk away.

While Hartzell addressed the emails, which he said don’t represent the values of the Longhorn community, disagreement on the song doesn’t mean it should go away.

“The Eyes of Texas is non-negotiable,” wrote one graduate who said they’ve had season tickets since 1990 and whose name was redacted by the university. “If it is not kept and fully embraced, I will not be donating any additional money to athletics or the university or attending any events.”

Collier said the decision to keep the song was based on and valued money over morality.

“We can’t afford to place profit over people and bow to pressures from bigoted donors,” Collier said Monday. “We must do what is right and remove this racist song immediately.”