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The case against singing “The Eyes of Texas”

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Some traditions deserve to end.

NCAA Football: Texas Orange-White Spring Game John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

From Robert E. Lee to current Texas Longhorns fans and athletes and former athletes, the origins of the alma mater “The Eyes of Texas” still bear down across more than 160 years.

Black athletes across sports released a statement on social media Friday about racial injustice and requests to build inclusion that included one particular request arguably receiving the most attention in the immediate aftermath of its release — the removal of “The Eyes of Texas” as the school’s alma mater due to its “racist undertones” or, at the least, no longer asking athletes to sing it after games.

Not singing the Eyes of Texas with teammates is notable enough that when linebacker Juwan Mitchell left the field early following the regular season finale against Texas Tech without doing so, it was a comment-worthy development for beat writers waiting for post-game access.

Former walk-on linebacker Cort Jaquess then started over Mitchell in the Alamo Bowl against Utah. Weeks later, Mitchell entered the NCAA transfer portal before ultimately removing his name.

Friday’s statement sparked a debate about the Eyes of Texas that normally lingers around the edges of university discourse.

A story first told in 1926, The Alcalde retold it as far back as 1985.

One student interviewed in 2009 by ABC News said that he’d stopped singing it completely after learning of its history. Another student said she was “shocked” to learn about that history.

An article in The Daily Texan two years ago wondered, “Racist tradition or cornerstone of school spirit?” As writer Jessica Luther aptly noted on Twitter, “The answer is ‘Yes’ and that’s the problem.”

Among black former players, the discussion behind the scenes over the years was much more substantial than it was among the average fan.

Former defensive end Sam Acho, who has a long history of missionary work in Nigeria and outspoken activism in pursuit of racial justice, most recently regarding racial disparities among NFL coaches and front office members, addressed his own feelings about the song on Twitter.

“Most black players hated singing that song,” he wrote. “We were required to. We knew about the racial undertones but didn’t know how to address them.”

Austin American-Statesman columnist Cedric Golden recalls multiple conversations on the topic.

Former offensive tackle Donald Hawkins says he was told that it was originally a slave song featuring a verse that went, “The Eyes of Master is watching you.”

The statement on Friday from current players and the discussion by former players have centered a topic also emerging from the student-led elements of the burgeoning movement, as acknowledged by a UT page on the subject.

“In the wake of the protests over the killing of George Floyd, students are petitioning the university to reexamine the legacy of the song,” it reads. “One petition calls for acknowledging racist roots to the song, another calls for discontinuing its use at all university events.”

And, of course, there’s that request by athletes to remove requirements to sing it.

The first petition may be this one from Change.org that is closing in on 14,000 signatures by Friday evening. There’s also a “Student Community Statement” co-written by 126 student organizations that echoes many of the requests from Texas football players and is in further conversation with years-long discussions about the presence of Confederate statues on campus, buildings named after Confederates, and buildings named after unreconstructed racists like Robert E. Lee Moore, a former math professor.

So, what is that important history for the Eyes of Texas?

According to a 1926 account from Mary Lee Prather Darden published in the Dallas Morning News and then recounted by The Alcalde, the story starts with an 1899 speech to new students from UT’s third president, her father, William Lambden Prather.

“On one occasion in the Civil War, it fell to the lot of a Texas troop to be reviewed by General Robert E. Lee,” Prather said. “The officer gave this command, ‘Forward, men of Texas, the eyes of General Lee are upon you.’

“I would like to paraphrase that utterance and say to you, ‘Forward, young men and women of the university, the eyes of Texas are upon you!”

Following the defeat of Lee and the Confederacy, president Ulysses S. Grant embarked on his attempt to reconstruct the south — in 1865, for instance, General George A. Custer was stationed in Austin more than a decade before his death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The presence of 50,000 US troops in Texas quickly decreased to 3,000 within a year.

Since emancipation threatened the social, economic, and political order in the South, white Texans fought back against Reconstruction as the same story played out across the former Confederacy. Jim Crow laws emerged. Former Confederate soldiers started the Ku Klux Klan in 1865 and began committing acts of racial terrorism expressed in the social order through racist Confederate monuments and the willingness to name school buildings after Confederates. Moore had the building named for him following his death in 1976.

The South remained and arguably remains unrepentantly unreconstructed.

As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer writes, “The Confederacy lost the war. The South won it.”

One prong of that fight was the battle over continued educational control.

On that day in 1899, Prater addressed an entirely white student body. In fact, white elites maintained their control over education until 1950 — more than a half century after Prather’s speech and 87 years after the Emancipation Proclamation — until prospective law student Heman Sweatt, who was refused admission into the University of Texas, won his case in the Supreme Court to overturn the “separate but equal doctrine” established by Plessy v. Ferguson three years before Prather’s speech.

The precedent set in Sweatt v. Painter helped provide the basis for Brown v. Board of Education several years later.

Against that backdrop, a 1899 white elite’s reference to Lost Cause mythology that persists to this day was a reference that the white students of the time surely understood — it was at least adjacent to white supremacy, even if it wasn’t necessarily about white supremacy explicitly.

Even to this day, that type of implicit white supremacy remains insidious, disguised ever so gently in less explicit forms that are nonetheless easily identifiable for white supremacists and people of color.

As popular as the phrase “The Eyes of Texas are upon you” remains in 2020 as the foundation of the alma mater and an expression of so much athletic success, it was equally popular on campus after Prather introduced it and then continued to use it.

Students said it frequently enough that four years later, a student composed the first version of The Eyes of Texas for an annual minstrel show, sung by white students in black face. The tune ultimately came from the “Levee Song,” which caricatured black dialect and included lyrics referencing the exploitative labor conditions on railroads and at levees. Those exploitation conditions were key to but hardly the only aspect of continued white control of the economic order.

Over time, the Levee Song eventually became what’s now known as “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Its evolution from minstrel shows to a popular children’s song is an example of how white supremacy repurposed outdated oppressive social artifacts — when minstrel shows finally became unacceptable by the time of those landmark legal decisions, their music was replaced with whitewashed versions that maintained the core underlying elements of and references to white supremacy.

That’s why we now know the tune for the Eyes of Texas as I’ve Been Working on the Railroad instead of the much more explicitly racist Levee Song.

So the original author of the Eyes of Texas, John Sinclair, took a popular saying around campus that ultimately referenced the traitorous slaveholder Robert E. Lee, then put it on top of a racist tune that his fellow white college students enjoyed hearing at minstrel shows.

Consider, then, the context of never being able to escape the eyes of Texas, eyes deeply connected to Lee and then the system of organized oppression that followed emancipation and clearly persists to this day. Consider the way that black athletes and black students interpret that as an implicit reference to slaveholding and the treatment of slaves who tried to escape.

Lee’s eyes no longer follow black students around the campus — his statue was removed from its spot south of the Tower during the night in 2017 after the mass rally of racists in Charlottesville — but Confederate statues remain on campus and buildings are still named for other Confederates and subsequent racists named for Lee.

Not only do the eyes of Confederates still follow black students around the campus, where the names of Moore and former Confederates on buildings remind them of continued institutionalized racism, the eyes and institutionalized power of slavery’s modern-day counterparts continue the battle waged by Lee and his counterparts.

During a 2018 movement to remove the name of Robert E. Lee Moore from the math, physics, and astronomy building due to those well-documented racist views, the Daily Texan noted that, “There’s also the concern that changing the name of RLM could mean blowback from racist investors like those who rebelled against the removal of the Confederate statues last August.”

So far, it looks like those “racist investors” and their supporters throughout the university and in the fan base are still winning.

It was no coincidence, then, that on Friday evening armed civilians took to the streets to protect a Confederate statue in Brandenburg, Kentucky, a city across the Ohio River from Indiana.

“This is our battle line. No one is crossing it.”

Their aims seem quite explicit — a continued battle line that requires the use of force to maintain the presence of racist symbols that are currently falling across the world in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Here’s the bottom line, then.

While the Eyes of Texas doesn’t contain any explicitly racist language, it does sit adjacent to other continued forms of institutional racism and traces its history from racist minstrel shows to Lost Cause mythology and the unreconstructed South to the Confederacy to, ultimately, the start of slavery itself.

It’s not a particularly wavering line through history, either.

Black student-athletes shouldn’t have to sing the Eyes of Texas at sporting events and every conscious person can make their own decision about whether they want to continue singing it absent the school deciding to change the alma mater altogether.

But why shouldn’t it change, given all that history and all that continued discomfort caused to those black former athletes and the black current athletes who still don’t own control of their name, image, and likeness, yet underpin the popular and therefore financial success of Texas athletics and every other post-integration athletics program around the country?

When those athletes learn the story, they still feel the wrong eyes of Texas upon them, eyes that follow them today across campus and from the northern edge of Kentucky. Those eyes will follow them, as the alma mater says, until the archangel Gabriel blows his horn to announce Judgment Day.

On this evening, armed civilians and police are continuing to ensure that will be the case in a state that never even fully declared for the Confederacy.

Now, at least, you know the story of the Eyes of Texas, too.