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University Of Texas Students Call For Removal Of Song Steeped In Racist History

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

University of Texas band will not play during today's football game against Baylor. Tensions on and off the UT campus in Austin are growing over its school song, "The Eyes Of Texas." The controversy has frustrated alumni and politicians and could derail some of the racial reconciliation efforts that began after the police killing of George Floyd. Jimmy Maas of member station KUT reports. And one note - KUT's newsroom is independent, but its broadcast license is held by the University of Texas.

JIMMY MAAS, BYLINE: For generations, there's been a ritual for most University of Texas students and alumni. Graduations, pep rallies, wedding receptions and sporting events have ended singing "The Eyes Of Texas."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Until Gabriel blows his horn.

(APPLAUSE)

MAAS: Texas athletes were required to stand on the field until the song was over, but this season it's different. Social justice protests inspired many Texas athletes to ask for changes to support Black students, including replacing "The Eyes Of Texas." So what's the problem? In short, the phrase the eyes of Texas are upon you was repeatedly used by former school president William Prather after he took office in 1899. He got it from Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who would end post-Civil War speeches with the eyes of the South are upon you. Then students created the song and performed it in blackface at minstrel shows.

RICHARD REDDICK: It might be about "The Eyes Of Texas," but it's really about how we interpret American history.

MAAS: This is Richard Reddick, associate dean for equity, community engagement and outreach in the UT College of Education.

REDDICK: I mean, this is a conversation that can take place on many college campuses, on many issues and items of symbolism in this country because they often do have these origins that are partly veiled and partly, wow, I just found that out. And that's kind of disturbing, right?

MAAS: Many students and alumni knew nothing of the song's legacy. The football team has drawn criticism for leaving the field before the song is played, as has been tradition. The band has not been to any games thus far because of COVID. It was supposed to make its debut today, but now it won't. Not enough band members say they're willing to play it.

John Fleming was the school's first African American drum major. He has since been actively involved in the Longhorn alumni band, a group that is as fractured on this issue as everyone else associated with the campus.

JOHN FLEMING: I'm a Black man standing in a white uniform leading all of these people in a song that I'm not sure that I'm - I'm pretty sure I'm not happy with knowing what I know about it.

MAAS: UT's Reddick is leading a committee to figure out a path forward by January, keeping "The Eyes Of Texas" but with a more complete accounting and acknowledgment of its past. Reddick is aware the issue is politically charged and people are emotionally invested in the outcome.

REDDICK: This is the reconciliation moment, I hope, that we sort of have this conversation as a community and figure out what goes next. And obviously what we come up with hopefully is a starting point, right? So I hope that inspires people to do more examination and more thinking and more listening.

MAAS: Just as it has in Texas's previous home games this season, a recorded "Eyes Of Texas" will play today at the stadium. Who stays to listen remains to be seen. For NPR News, I'm Jimmy Maas in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.