After taking to the streets of downtown Austin, Tex. on June 4, 2020, to protest racial inequality in the wake of George Floyd's death, members of the University of Texas football team as well as two dozen basketball and track stars decided that enough was enough in terms of the school's handling of racially divisive issues.
One of the most poignant topics they raised was regarding the racially insensitive roots of the school's unofficial fight song, "The Eyes of Texas," as well as the fact that despite its roots in racism, the song is still sung at virtually every Texas Longhorns game.
So, what exactly is the controversy surrounding the "The Eyes of Texas" song, and is it actually racist? Here's a breakdown of what's known about the school song, its roots, and students' reactions to it.
Is 'The Eyes of Texas' song racist? It has roots in the American Confederacy.
According to Texas Monthly, the school's unofficial fight song was derived from a quote made by Confederate general Robert E. Lee, who was the president of Washington College in Virginia (now called Washington and Lee University). During a speech in the 1860s at the school, the Confederate icon would tell students that "the eyes of the South are upon you," meaning that they should always uphold traditional southern values.
William Prather was a student at Washington College during Lee's tenure who eventually became the University of Texas' president in 1899. The new president would give rousing speeches to students that included many references to Lee, saying on at least one occasion: "I would like to paraphrase [Lee’s] utterance and say to you, ‘Forward, young men and women of the University, the eyes of Texas are upon you!'"
By 1902, a student named Lewis Johnson approached his classmate John L. Sinclair with the idea to create a new song for the school. A year later, they debuted "The Eyes of Texas" to the entire school and then-president Prather as an ode to his love for the Confederacy. It's also reported that this first performance featured the students donning blackface. The song became an instant hit amongst the university community and has existed as the default unofficial school fight song for more than 100 years.
The school's racist history extends far beyond "The Eyes of Texas."
Dr. Edmund T. Gordon, a professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Anthropology at the school, has been leading tours since 2001 with the hope that they will educate attendees on the racist past of the campus. During the tours, he highlights how buildings, cafes, fountains, and other prominent landmarks around the school are still named after Confederate soldiers and people who owned slaves.
In their letter penned in the wake of the protests regarding George Floyd's death, the school's athletes petitioned administrators to not only drop "The Eyes of Texas" as a de facto fight song but to also rename any and all memorials across campus dedicated to former representatives of the Confederacy.
Some wealthy alumni threatened to pull donations if the school ceded to player's requests.
As reported by the Texas Tribune, nearly 300 former students of the school — many of whom are high-profile donors now — emailed the current president in the wake of racial injustice protests threatening to pull financial support if the school ceded to the requests to stop playing "The Eyes of Texas."
Despite the controversy, new team head coach Steve Sarkisian has maintained that teams will still play the song after games into their next season at least. As for players participating in the song, some have walked off the field when the song began in the past. Only time will tell how the precarious and developing racial tensions at the Texas school continue to develop, or whether the situation will be effectively mediated.