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Controversial song 'The Eyes of Texas' likely first played at minstrel show but wasn't created with racist intent, U. of Texas committee finds

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UT's football team last summer demanded the school dump the song while wealthy donors reportedly threatened to pull support if players didn't remain on the field for the traditional singalong

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"The Eyes of Texas" — a fight song long connected with the University of Texas and more recently criticized as possessing racist origins — was likely first performed at a minstrel show but was not created with racist intent, according to a UT committee's 58-page report on the issue released Tuesday, ESPN reported.

What are the details?

The outlet said the tune, penned in 1903, is traditionally played at sporting events — including before and after Texas Longhorns football games — but recently has generated controversy and has divided the campus and surrounding community.

UT President Jay Hartzell was asked during a Tuesday interview on the Longhorn Network regarding the committee's findings if "The Eyes of Texas" has racist undertones, ESPN said.

"For me, the song itself doesn't," Hartzell replied, according to the outlet. "But it certainly was present at different times where those undertones existed. You go back to thinking about its first performance in 1903 at a minstrel show. I mean, you cannot deny that that performance has the racial undertones, and overtones, if you will. Hateful things. But on the other hand, if you look at the way, to me, the song was composed, written and designed. ... It was not designed for that."

The committee's report recommended that students not be required to sing the song, ESPN added.

What's the background?

Amid the George Floyd protests and rioting last summer, University of Texas football players declared they wouldn't participate in recruiting or donor events unless the school met list of demands aimed at racial justice — and one of them was that UT should dump "The Eyes of Texas" and "have a new song written for us to sing. Do not require athletes to sing the song."

The players, however, said they would continue to practice and play in games — but being on the field for "The Eyes of Texas" rendition with fans in the stands became too much for some of them who chose to not participate.

As it happens, two Longhorn players told the Texas Tribune that school athletic officials said in October that the team had to stay on the field postgame for "The Eyes of Texas" because donors were upset by athletes protesting the traditional singalong and threatened to pull their financial support because of it.

What's more, football players said athletic officials referenced emails from donors who said such protests could impact their job prospects after graduation, the Tribune added.

UT players received death threats over 'Eyes of Texas' controversy | KVUE youtu.be

What did UT's president have to say about attacks against players?

"I really feel for [them for] some of the vitriol they've faced and suffered from," Hartzell said of the players, according to ESPN. "I think it's unfair, and they were doing what they should do. They used their voice. We're in a better place now than we were before because of them. ... I wish I could protect everybody from hearing things that are hateful, but the best I can, we can denounce it and come to show them love."

As for future expectations, Hartzell said his "hope is that we'll get to a point where people feel good about staying on the field and honoring each other, whether it's fans in the stands honoring the student-athletes, student-athletes honoring support from the fans. But nobody's going to be required or mandated to stay on the field. Or certainly to sing the song," ESPN added.

What else do we know about the committee's report?

Richard J. Reddick — a UT professor and associate dean for equity, community engagement, and outreach in the College of Education — chaired the committee, which consisted of 24 people and included students, alumni, current and former members of the Longhorn Band, historians, administrators, and professors, the sports network noted.

Reddick in a UT video went through a good bit of what he and the other committee members discovered, both facts and myths.

Committee Chair Richard Reddick: Working Toward Change youtu.be

"There's no smoking gun," Reddick told the Longhorn Network about the committee's findings, according to ESPN. "There's nothing that either vindicates or implicates 'The Eyes of Texas.' It is an artifact of the university. It is a part of our history, the history of The University of Texas, Texas, the South, the postbellum Jim Crow South. So all those things are in there."

Anything else?

ESPN listed a few key findings of the report:

  • "Researchers said they could find no direct link between the signature line 'the eyes of Texas are upon you' and anything Robert E. Lee would say to his students at Washington and Lee University, where he was president after the Civil War. The panel determined there is a 'very low likelihood' the line originated with Lee."
  • "The song borrows the melody of 'I've Been Working on the Railroad,' a song with racist lyrics, most likely because it was already well known and easy to sing."
  • "Performances at campus minstrel shows with actors in blackface, which continued into the 1960s, are a 'painful reality,' but the song did not appear to have been composed as a minstrel tune."

The sports network also said the committee recommended teaching the song's history at student orientation events and allowing new versions of "The Eyes of Texas" to be composed and/or performed by black musicians.

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