'Eyes of Texas' divides athletes, students and alumni at UT
When the familiar notes of “The Eyes of Texas” started to play from the speakers at the corner of the bar’s outdoor patio, conversations quieted and people began to sing.
Some were wearing matching T-shirts they had received upon entry to the bar, meant to signal their support for the song now washing over the students and alumni gathered to watch that Saturday’s football game.
It was one of many times that spectators at Cain and Abel's in West Campus would hear the University of Texas’ alma mater play during the game, and in any other year, the display would be perfectly normal.
But at Royal-Memorial Stadium, all was not normal. The Longhorn Band would not perform at the game, after several members said they would not feel comfortable playing “The Eyes” because of its racist origins.
It appeared to be the climax of months of debate, as the campus community reckoned with its past and considered the role the school song should play in the institution’s future.
The issue has divided student-athletes, pitted students against alumni and spurred numerous petitions as the campus decides whether the song that has graced football games, graduation ceremonies and other university celebrations for more than a century should continue to be part of the university’s traditions.
The issue arose as part of social justice protests after the May death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. It has lingered for months during an unprecedented year at the university, with most students living off campus and attending classes virtually amid the coronavirus pandemic.
University leaders have said that the song will stay, even as players, students and musicians cannot be ordered to support it and observe the traditions at games. A more permanent resolution will come later, after a committee established by UT administrators delivers findings about the song’s history and recommendations on how to approach that history.
Revisiting the controversy
The lyrics for “The Eyes of Texas” were written by two students in 1903 — inspired by a phrase frequently repeated in speeches by then-UT President William Prather — and they were set to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”
Prather himself was inspired by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who at the time served as president of Washington College in Virginia, which would become Washington and Lee University. Lee was known to tell students, who included Prather years earlier, that “the eyes of the South are upon you.”
John Lang Sinclair, a member of the university band and editor of the Cactus yearbook, wrote the song at the urging of Lewis Johnson, another student in the band, according to a history of the song compiled by the alumni association.
The song debuted at a Varsity minstrel show, a fundraiser for UT athletics, and was at some points performed by white singers in blackface.
The university took trademark ownership of the phrase “The Eyes of Texas are upon you” in 1936, according to university records.
Over the years, a few critics have urged the university to drop the song as its official tune. But it was only after this summer's wave of protests against systemic racism across society that efforts to muffle the song gained traction.
In June, a small group of UT students launched a petition urging the university to sever its long-standing ties to Confederate leaders and people who supported segregation. The petition called for the names of some buildings and landmarks on campus to be changed and asked university leaders to “acknowledge the racist roots of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ and its origins from a reoccurring minstrel show on campus through a formal statement to the student body.”
Also in June, a group of student-athletes asked for the university and the athletic department to “keep their promise of condemning racism on our campus” and “go beyond this by taking action to make Texas more comfortable and inclusive for the black athletes and the black community that has so fervently supported this program.”
Among their requests: “The replacement of The Eyes of Texas with a new song without racist undertones.”
A month later, the university began a series of actions that included a pledge to do more to recruit and support nonwhite students, faculty and staff members; an agreement to rename certain structures; and a promise to “own, acknowledge and teach about all aspects of the origins of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ as we continue to sing it moving forward with a redefined vision that unites our community.”
Challenges to the school song follow other calls for the university to divest itself of historical signs of past racism, including numerous monuments to the Confederacy on the university grounds.
In 2015, Student Government leaders renewed an ongoing debate over symbols of the Confederacy, voting overwhelmingly in favor of removing a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from its prominent perch near the UT Tower.
Students and alumni signed petitions urging the university to remove the statue. Vandals added their own commentary, tagging the statue with “Black Lives Matter” and “Bump All the Chumps.”
University officials ultimately decided to move Davis’ statue to the Briscoe Center for American History on campus, citing both the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and the “urging of students” as motivating factors.
In 2017, the university removed four remaining statues depicting men with ties to the Confederacy: Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, John Reagan and James Stephen Hogg.
“Last week, the horrific displays of hatred at the University of Virginia and in Charlottesville shocked and saddened the nation,” then-UT President Gregory L. Fenves wrote in a letter to the university community. White supremacist protests there turned violent, again exposing racial tension in the country. “These events make it clear, now more than ever, that Confederate monuments have become symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism.”
In response to this year's calls for change, UT agreed to honor and memorialize minority contributions to the school's history, including changing the name of Robert Lee Moore Hall, an academic building named for a former professor; permanently honoring Heman M. Sweatt as UT’s first Black student; erecting a statue of Julius Whittier, UT’s first Black football letterman, at Royal-Memorial Stadium; and changing the name of Joe Jamail Field inside the stadium to honor UT’s Heisman Trophy winners, Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams.
The school also will honor the Precursors, the first Black undergraduates at UT, with a new monument on the campus’ East Mall.
‘Eyes’ debate continues
The controversy over “The Eyes of Texas” punctuated an already unusual football season. Although university leaders have opted to keep the song, its future remains uncertain.
New President Jay Hartzell in October formed a committee of faculty, students and alumni to examine the song’s history and make recommendations, expected i on how to acknowledge that history while continuing to play the song.
In the meantime, protests and petitions have continued. Hartzell and the athletic department received dozens of letters from alumni and former athletes, some urging careful consideration of the issue and others dismissing the student protesters and arguing that any change to the school’s song would be “a disgrace.”
At least a few people wrote to Hartzell announcing that they would not renew their season tickets or make any financial contributions to the university if the “madness continues (madness meaning all the ridiculous accusations about our school song),” as one letter explained.
“My last name may not be Jamail or McCombs; however, if all donors at my giving level stop giving to the University ... what will happen?” says the letter, obtained by the American-Statesman through a request under the Texas Public Information Act. “Explain that to our athletes that make the choice to leave the field/court and DISRESPECT our school and our faithful alumni."
During the season, athletes were not required to stand on the field while the song was played. In the first home games of the season, many headed to the locker room as the tune queued up.
The Texas volleyball team opted not to acknowledge the song, choosing to huddle together as it played instead of celebrating with fans as they’ve done in seasons past.
For the men's basketball team, it has been less of an issue. When the song plays at the end of games, players stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their arms linked — some raise their arms to display the "Hook ’em, Horns" sign.
“We believe it is important to make the necessary changes on campus consistent with the growing national movement to remove vestigial racist songs, rituals, cheers, and emblems from college campuses, and sports generally,” says an email sent to Hartzell by a group of former student-athletes from the university.
Other letters offered advice to Hartzell, urging him to make a more immediate decision about the song and put an end to student demonstrations.
“At this very late date, President Hartzell’s idea of kicking this can down the road for longer with a commission to study and blah, blah blah, till months later is wrong, disrespectful, and tone deaf to the magnitude of what has been allowed to fester for months,” one message says. “This needs to be addressed this week!”
“The current situation with the Eyes of Texas controversy has divided this campus to the point I am not sure we can resolve the issue(s) to the satisfaction of all concerned,” says another.
Staff writer Brian Davis contributed to this report.