The intent of “The Eyes of Texas” was “not overtly racist,” a UT Austin committee said in a report about the song released Tuesday morning.
“However,” the 59-page report states, “it is similarly clear that the cultural milieu that produced it was.”
The Eyes of Texas History Committee recommended developing a campaign for students and alumni “to lean into difficult conversations, including race, history, and talking across differences.” The group was formed by UT President Jay Hartzell last year to take an in-depth look at the school’s alma mater, first performed in blackface at a minstrel show in 1903.
The committee was not going to make a decision on the song’s future at the campus. Last year, the University of Texas Board of Regents and Hartzell made clear the song was staying.
Richard Reddick, associate dean in the College of Education, headed the committee, which was made up of a cross-section of UT constituents: 26 faculty, students, staff, historians, and alumni; current and former athletes; and current and former band members. Some attended UT, some did not.
“I think the harder thing President Hartzell chose was this different route,” Reddick said. “Which is not to say, ‘We’re keeping it; just keep on moving.’ Not to say, ‘We’re getting rid of it; let’s hope it goes away — the headlines go away.’ It’s, ‘Let’s work with this and use it as a tool to teach.’”
“Eyes” has a long and complicated history, but the committee found the song itself was not racist.
The story of its origin was often told like this: Then-university President William Prather was a fan of speeches by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Lee’s signature ending, “the eyes of the South are upon you.” Prather, as the story went, cribbed the line and was fond of saying “the eyes of Texas are upon you.”
But the committee found no primary source for a Lee speech that ended that way. Washington and Lee University (then Washington College), where Lee was president and Prather a student, has no record of it. The claims of the connection come from a memoir by a former Texas dean named T.U. Taylor. The committee found other errors in Taylor’s recollections and concluded that it was unlikely “The Eyes of Texas” originated with Lee’s words.
The committee found the song was written by band members to make fun of Prather, who later embraced it. The song took on new meaning after his death in 1905. In the following decades, “Eyes” was played at football games, used as a form of protest by students and other groups at the state Capitol, and was even played onboard NASA spacecraft.
Committee member Cloteal Davis-Haynes is a member of the Precursors, an alumni group comprised of the first Black students to integrate UT. She arrived at Texas in the middle of 1968, during another time of social upheaval in the U.S.
“My college days weren’t filled with standing and putting my horns up and singing the song. It just wasn’t. That wasn’t my time,” she said. “Over the years, though, there is no question the university evolved. They got on the right side of those issues. So, people evolve. Institutions evolve. I have to tell you with my history of not singing the song, I sing the song today.”
The song’s changing meaning was important to committee member Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a journalism professor at UT.
“There were a few times that ‘The Eyes of Texas’ song was used to protest state government and to protest the UT administration,” she said.
The committee uncovered the use of the phrase by Texas suffragists as early as 1917, eventually pressuring the state to ratify the 19th Amendment. Members also found it was sung by Mexican-American farmworkers on a march from the Rio Grande Valley to the Capitol in 1966.
In the weeks following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a group of UT student-athletes started their own protest. They posted on social media that they would not participate in any fundraising events if the university did not make changes on campus.
The students demanded the removal of names of known racists from campus buildings and a structured program with funding from the athletic program to recruit Black students, a population that is underrepresented on campus. They also said they wanted the option of not standing for “The Eyes of Texas” because of its racist origins.
The response from donors and alumni became the subject of controversy after several emails were made public earlier this month. Many were directed at student-athletes and band students; some explicitly at Black students.
“I really feel for some of the vitriol they have faced and suffered from and I think it’s unfair,” Hartzell said in an interview on ESPN’s Longhorn Network. “They were doing what they should do. They used their voice. They took a step, and we’re in a better place now than we were before because of them.”
The attack on athletes did not sit well with former Texas football player and committee member Quan Cosby.
“They wanted to know the truth,” Cosby said. “They were told that the song had racial undertones, mainly because of the blackface history. I had actually been told that when I was in school.”
Cosby played on the 2005 national championship team before a stint in the NFL. The committee was looking for facts about the song, he said, and he agrees with its findings.
He is not sure if the debate off-campus was ever about “The Eyes,” but more about what else was going on in the country.
“I just thought it got really political,” he said. “It wasn’t about the song. It wasn’t about UT. It was about a bunch of folks voicing their political perspectives and beliefs, and trying to turn the song into the [national] anthem, as opposed to Longhorn nation sitting back and trying to find the best resolution.”