On Tuesday, the Eyes of Texas History Committee released its full report, along with a website, on its findings. President Jay Hartzell stated in response that “The story of ‘the Eyes’ mirrors the greater history of this university, indeed that of our state and nation. Parts of that history are inspiring and surprising. Other parts are disappointing, even painful.” Over the past year, the alma mater of the University of Texas at Austin has come under controversy as some students, faculty, and alumni have voiced concern over the song. This came to a head when Texas football players released a statement via Twitter requesting that “The Eyes of Texas” be replaced and that athletes should not be required to sing the song.
With these events fresh on President Hartzell’s mind, the Eyes of Texas History Committee had to complete four requirements when it was founded on October 6, 2020:
1. Collect and document the facts of the origin, the creators’ intent, and the elements of “The Eyes of Texas,” including the lyrics and music.
2. Examine the university’s historical institutional use and performance of “The Eyes of Texas.”
3. Chronicle the historical usage of “The Eyes of Texas” by University of Texas students, staff, faculty and alumni, as well as its usage in broader cultural events, such as film, literature and popular media.
4. Recommend potential communication tactics and or strategies to memorialize the history of “The Eyes of Texas.”
With this objective, the committee poured over the history of the song, from its debut to today, in a 59-page report. The committee was headed by Dr. Richard Riddick, the Associate Dean for Equity, Community Engagement, and Outreach. Along with him, 24 other Longhorns chaired the committee from former alumni, to Longhorn Band members, to Spirit Squad members, to faculty, to retired administrators, and student-athletes. The report extensively explored the song’s history, a summary of which is below.
The controversy around the song stems mainly from its origins. In 1902, UT student Lewis Johnson and John Lang Sinclair developed the song from a famous phrase, “the eyes of Texas are upon you,” from then-President William Prather. Many have believed that the phrase originated from Confederate General Robert E. Lee who supposedly said “the eyes of the South are upon you” at the end of his speeches, however, there are no found primary sources that Robert E. Lee said such a phrase. The report points out that similar phrases were common from the Bible in the Book of Job to George Washington who said “the eyes of the nation are upon you.” Because of this, the committee concluded that there was a “very low likelihood” that the phrase “the Eyes of Texas are upon you” stems from Robert E. Lee and rather is a message of accountability to students.
“The Eyes of Texas” was first performed on May 12, 1903, at a student-organized minstrel show at the Hancock Opera House in downtown Austin to fundraise for the university track team. This debut was strategic because it was known that President Prather would be in attendance, so Johnson and Sinclair wanted to use the song to poke fun at him. Henry Brands, the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History, stated that “the fact that it was performed at a minstrel show, was almost happenstance… that wasn’t part of the design, that wasn’t part of the intention.” The report concluded that the song was “most probably” performed in blackface – a fact central to the controversy. The song was later performed at President Prather’s funeral as a “reverential hymn” which marked a turning point for the song when it began to be used across Texas and the United States.
Despite the complicated origin of “The Eyes of Texas,” Dr. Riddick said, “[The Eyes of Texas] never really stayed static, it evolved, it changed.” While “The Eyes of Texas” was used mainly as the school song of UT Austin, it was also used frequently for protest. Throughout its history, the song has been used to fight for the rights of the university and the rights of minority groups. In 1911, at a barbecue that was attended by the entire Texas legislature on campus, 600 female students sang “The Eyes of Texas” to send a message that, “the eyes of the people of Texas were looking to the lawmakers to do what was right and properly fund the state university.” In 1917, after antagonism between Governor James Ferguson and university administrators, students marched to the Capitol to sing “The Eyes of Texas.” In 1944, students again marched on the Capitol singing the song in support of university president Homer Rainey who was accused of being a conscientious objector, a gay professor, and wanting to admit African Americans to UT Austin. When President Rainey was later fired, students sang “The Eyes of Texas” as a dirge for the death of academic freedom.
Beyond UT, the song was used throughout Texas (the Texas legislature attempted to make it the state song twice) by underrepresented groups. The League of Women Voters used the phrase “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You” during the ratification of the 19th amendment. And in 1966, farm workers and clergy marched from the Rio Grande Valley to Austin singing “The Eyes of Texas” as a protest song of accountability. In 2000, Barbara Smith Conrad, one of the first black undergraduates at UT, sang “The Eyes of Texas” despite the blatant racism that she encountered when she was accepted and then rejected from a leading role in a student production due to her skin color (this made national news). Despite this, she showed grace to the university by singing “one of the most definitive versions of ‘The Eyes of Texas.’”
The reactions from students, members of the committee, faculty, and alumni about “The Eyes of Texas” and the report’s findings have been mixed with some saying that this puts the issue to rest, while others argue that there is still work to be done.
Members of the committee had various reactions upon learning the true history of the song. Most notable was Cloteal Davis Haynes, a former black student who attended UT in the late 1960s, who stated: “my expectations about what I would learn and find out about the true facts about ‘The Eyes of Texas’… I didn’t expect anything good.” She later stated that “if the facts revealed that the history of that song is, was, racist, I have to say that it wouldn’t surprise me. The surprise for me was that it wasn’t.”
Student reaction on campus has been mixed, much like the reaction of all Longhorns. Student body president Anagha Hakikkeri stated that “as a student of color, generally, I look back at the history of the university and know I can’t see myself in any of that. And I know black students feel like that on an even more intense level.”
Jordan Clements, the UT Austin chapter president of the Young Conservatives of Texas stated that,
“I hope this becomes a lesson for future Longhorns to not jump on the bandwagon in denouncing a part of our history. The nuanced nature about the history of our school song was public knowledge. It’s a shame that the administration had to spoon-feed us this information because of all the faux outrage.”
Brandon Bradley, president of the University Democrats, stated that,
“I think the report (as we knew it would) substantiates the fact that the issues raised by athletes of color over the summer were well-founded. President Hartzell talks about having a common set of facts and I think the report is a positive step in that it removes outright denial of the historical racism surrounding the song as a justification for keeping it. Now those who want to keep what we can (by Hartzell’s own standard) stipulate is an evidently racist, deeply hurtful song in use must either embrace it openly or make the problematic argument about reclaiming the song.
It is telling that the only voices calling for the song to be better understood and reclaimed are the people not directly hurt by the song’s racist origins. If our students of color wanted to reclaim the song, I’d be all for it. But the vast majority do not, and in a polite society, if a shared tradition meant to bring people together is evidently causing a group clear pain, we ought to have the basic human decency to respect their wishes and change the song.
Though I find President Hartzell’s support for the song incredibly disappointing and insensitive, students will keep pushing for a space that actually reflects our values. As donors try to hold on to power I take solace as a student of history in the fact that eventually, the forces of conservatism cannot stand against the change sought by the next generation. The report illustrated how it was a student-led movement that established the song in the first place. Now it is our time to establish the next one.”
The campus reaction to the findings of the report came just a week after a Texas Tribune article released emails from alumni that demanded President Hartzell take a stronger stance on “The Eyes of Texas” with some threatening to pull their donations. Many alumni wrote to the Office of the President following the Red River Showdown where Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger stayed on the field to sing “The Eyes of Texas”, a post-game tradition, as many other players returned to the locker room. Ehlinger later stated in an interview with the Austin-American Statesman that,
“That perspective is that I grew up a Longhorn. I grew up singing ‘The Eyes of Texas’ win, lose, or draw. I shared that experience with my family. I shared that experience with my (late) dad, and never once singing that song has anything negative ever crossed my mind. It was always about paying respect to the university and the incredible tradition that the University of Texas has. I also feel a connection with my family and my dad singing that song because I grew up doing that. That’s why it’s important to me. All of my guys and all of my teammates understand that and they know my perspective.”
President Hartzell, in an interview with the Longhorn Network, hopes that athletes and fans would honor each other by staying on the field during “The Eyes of Texas”, but he added that “nobody is going to be required or mandated to stay on the field… or to sing the song.”
The Eyes of Texas History Report has a list of 40 recommendations that the Longhorn community could pursue to heal after this controversy. These include addressing the negative historical aspects of the song upfront, teaching the history of “The Eyes of Texas” at student orientation, recognizing the students who spoke out about the song, showing a short video on the song at UT football games, and many more that can be viewed here.
While UT students and alumni still may be split on “The Eyes of Texas,” ultimately, Dr. Riddick hopes that Longhorns “use this report as a measure of accountability, the Eyes of Texas are truly upon us.”
The Texas Horn reached out to the President of the Senate of College Councils on the subject, but they did not respond for comment.