Three statues of Confederate leaders were defaced in Austin recently, mere hours after the first serious discussion about removing just one of them. The vandals’ message, spraypainted in blood red, was clear for all to see the next morning. “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
In the days that followed, thousands of UT Austin students signed a petition calling on the university to tear down its statue of Jefferson Davis, leader of the Confederacy. Statues of Confederate military leaders Robert E. Lee and Albert Sydney Johnston were also defaced, and all three reside on the UT Austin campus. While UT Austin boasts statues of numerous other historical figures — like George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Woodrow Wilson — these three deserve special consideration.
“In light of recent events, there has been a national conversation about the meaning and place of the Confederate flag and symbols of the Confederacy,” the student petition states. “In the same way that the Confederate flag projects values of racial hatred, the Jefferson Davis statue memorializes a man who stood for racial inequality and bigotry.”
“As a black UT Graduate school alum the Jefferson Davis statue was a daily slap in the face every time I walked past it just as it was for my parents when they were undergrads in the late 60’s,” petition signer Rana Emerson commented. “It’s time for it to go. It reinforces the message that black students aren’t welcome on campus.”
They make very good point, and it’s one that students in Austin have raised quite a few times before, only to be ignored. This time, however, it seems their complaints have not fallen on deaf ears. Back in March, student leadership at UT Austin voted in favor of a resolution calling for the Davis statue to be removed, prompting school president Greg Fenves to meet with them to discuss the matter.
This is not the first time the school has looked at removing the statue — or the first time it has been vandalized — but Fenves seems to be taking the discussion more seriously than his predecessors. He’s even convened a 12-member task force to study the issue and propose alternative plans for the statue, but he also reminded students that the decision will ultimately be his alone. And for the time being, whatever that decision is, it will only apply to the statue of Davis.
The “recent events” referenced by the petition’s authors are too numerous to recount in a single editorial, but few are more shocking than the recent killing of nine people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. In a rambling manifesto, the 21-year-old white male alleged to have perpetrated these crimes explained that he wanted to start a race war. To make matters worse, photos surfaced online after the shootings showing the state and national flag at the South Carolina capitol lowered to half mast, while the Confederate flag still flew high. In subsequent reporting, we learned that South Carolina state law dictates only a two-thirds vote of the legislature may lower the Confederate flag.
The rapid political backlash over this prompted South Carolina’s Republican Governor, Nikki Haley, to unequivocably announce her support for removing the flag from the capitol grounds forever. “One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, the time has come,” she said. “There will be some in our state who see this as a sad moment. I respect that, but know this: For good and for bad, whether it is on the statehouse grounds or in a museum, the flag will always be a part of the soul of South Carolina. But this is a moment in which we can say that flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state.”
It was a bold statement, and one that puts Haley’s career on the line, but it was the right thing to do. UT Austin President Fenves should follow in her footsteps. Ideally, this would mean resettling the school’s Confederate statues in a more appropriate place: Not on campus, but in a museum where our public school children may someday go to learn the brutal truth about the darkest period of American history.
As the university has explained before, the Davis statue was introduced on campus in the early 1930’s along with a statue of Woodrow Wilson, both intended as symbols of a nation coming back together. Given the significance of history in the school’s last justification for keeping the statue openly displayed on campus, Fenves should also consider another historical fact: The painful truth is that the decision to erect the Davis statue was made only a few years after Austin’s leaders hatched a plan to create a “negro district” on the east side of town. Their legacy lives on in Austin to this very day, and much work remains before we can say that Austin has overcome the shadows of our past.
In that context, the Confederate statues on the UT Austin campus are as much a symbol of America as it was after the Civil War as they are a reminder of the bad old days of Austin during segregation. And that is why they must go.
Fenves has a chance to make a bold statement to the rest of the nation. He can unequivocally declare that the people of this city are not okay with institutionalized racism, that we can change, and that we really do believe that black lives matter. He should — not just by moving the statue of Davis off campus, but all of the university’s Confederate statues. At this moment in our history, if Fenves does nothing, it will be worse than embarrassing for Austin. It will rise to the level of disgrace.
Nobody believes that taking action in this manner will accomplish the goal of growing social unity and understanding between races, but it is certain to start a discussion about how those ideals can be achieved. Given recent events, it is clear that discussion is desperately needed.
If Gov. Haley can start that discussion in South Carolina simply by making a public statement, Fenves can do the same thing for this city by removing UT Austin’s Confederate relics. Here’s to hoping he makes the right decision.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Austin.com’s owner or contributors.
A Confederate flag hangs in a museum. Photo: Flickr user Pablo Sanchez, creative commons licensed.