AUSTIN (KXAN/Texas Tribune) — The Texas chapter of the NAACP, along with the civil rights organization’s University of Texas at Austin chapter and a group of anonymous students, has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights alleging UT Austin is creating a “hostile environment” for Black students by continuing to play the “The Eyes of Texas” alma mater song at university events.
The complaint, filed Friday morning, alleges Black students have been denied full benefits of Longhorn student life, because the song is an official part of the university, “despite its racially offensive origin, context and meaning.”
The song premiered at a minstrel show in the early 1900s where students likely wore blackface. Despite pushback, university officials have said they are going to keep the song as their alma mater, concluding in a report issued earlier this year the song “had no racist intent.”
The complaint, provided to The Texas Tribune by the filers, says the university has failed to respond to racial harassment against Black students and others who oppose the song, violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and argues the university’s decision to create a separate marching band for students who do not want to play “The Eyes of Texas” violates equal protections afforded under the Fourteenth Amendment.
This past spring, the UT-Austin Butler School of Music announced the creation of a new band in which students would not be required to play the song after members of the Longhorn Band refused to play it last fall due to its history and origins. Students in the Longhorn band are required to play the song.
UT Austin did not respond to a request for comment. A U.S. Department of Education spokesperson said it does not acknowledge complaints unless they have been accepted for investigation. The department updates its list of investigations on a monthly basis.
A University of Texas law professor says he doesn’t see the suit moving forward.
“I’m generally sympathetic to the argument that the plaintiffs are making,” Sanford Levinson said in an interview with KXAN.
“You have to look at this in the context of the judiciary we have, not in the context of the judiciary that political liberals wished we had,” he went on to explain, saying this especially applies when you look at the largely-conservative 5th Circuit.
“I find it very unlikely that there would be five votes in the U.S. Supreme Court to sustain the plaintiffs’ argument,” he said.
This latest move by the local NAACP chapters came one day before the start of the football season. The Longhorn Band plays the song, and those games have been where much of the controversy surrounding the song played out. A little over a year ago, a group of UT football players called for the school to discontinue using the song. The debate touched many parts of the university community, from athletics and academics to fundraising and student organizations. On Saturday, the band played the song and players stayed on the field for the postgame singalong tradition without a major issue. Football coach Steve Sarkisian said in January that “‘The Eyes of Texas’ is our school song. We’re going to sing that song. We’re going to sing that proudly.”
But the complaint signals the continued desire among some students and alumni beyond the football stadium to push administrators to discontinue using the song as UT Austin’s alma mater, despite the university’s insistence that it will remain. Last month, a group of students protested the song at an event welcoming new students to campus for the fall semester. Some students also staged a walkout at graduation last spring when the song played.
Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP, said the groups initially tried to work with university leaders to get them to do away with the song, but were unsuccessful. They decided to file the complaint because students said the campus climate surrounding the song had gotten increasingly tense throughout the spring semester. Al-Nasser Lawal, a UT-Austin senior and president of the UT-Austin chapter of the NAACP, said Black student groups also met with administrators to discuss their concerns with the song without success.
“As Black students, we kind of feel as if it’s not like our voices are heard,” Lawal said in an interview. “The main objective of the administration and the campus is just to appease their wealthy donors so that they can continue to get that funding, and that they don’t really have our best interests at heart.”
They argue the song is unavoidable as it is sung after sporting events, at graduation and from the UT Tower bells every evening.
Bledsoe said students involved chose to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation by the university.
The complaint targets UT Austin as well as some unnamed university alumni, arguing that while alumni do not receive federal funding, “actions of certain University alumni may be attributable to the University because the University has a duty to protect students and provide them a safe and non-threatening and non-discriminatory educational environment.”
It also quotes five anonymous students who shared various experiences where they felt ostracized or mistreated due to their opposition to the song.
Leaders of the NAACP chapters said they felt the decision to create two bands was the most egregious example of discrimination, harkening back to the 1950 Sweatt vs. Painter case in which the state created a separate law school for Black students instead of granting a Black applicant, Heman Sweatt, admission into UT Law. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled against UT-Austin because of the differences between the law school for white students, which had more professors, a larger law library and better facilities than the law school created for Black students.
Bledsoe said he believes the new band will not be awarded the same benefits as the long-standing Longhorn Band, which has a rich history and active alumni support base.
The complaint also argues UT Austin created a hostile environment for campus tour guides who called for the university to remove a plaque with the song lyrics from the university welcome center. The students went on strike after the university said they understood if students didn’t want to continue to serve as guides based on their feelings about the school song.
UT Austin announced last month it will remove the lyrics, but the complaint argues the university did nothing to address the financial and emotional harm students endured from that situation.
UT Austin president Jay Hartzell said last summer the song would stay after a group of football players demanded its removal in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The president then commissioned a group to study the song’s history.
The group’s report concluded that the song debuted in a racist setting, but had no racist intent. It also could not find a direct link that showed Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee inspired the phrase “The Eyes of Texas are upon you,” as previously stated by those who opposed the song.
“It was a big joke, it was a fundraiser. It was a public event. It was a very racist kind of entertainment that is no longer tolerated. Naturally, that is annoying to many Black students,” said UT history professor Alberto Martinez said of the report.
Soon after, Martinez, released his own report on the song’s history that contradicted some of the university’s conclusions. The complaint filed Friday accuses the university committee of not fully exploring the song’s history, pointing to Martinez’s report as evidence.
“If Hartzell and others thought this was going to go away, they’re just confused. We live in a time where people’s opinions are taken seriously,” Martinez said in an interview with KXAN.
UT Austin has stood by its own report.
Levinson says it may all come down to funding.
“There are many, many more people that would withdraw their contributions if the university got rid of the song than those who would write out checks,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.