The Eyes of Texas

For the past couple of weeks, there has been a fierce debate over the University of Texas at Austin’s school spirit song, “The Eyes of Texas.” The song has been embraced by the Longhorns for decades, and it is tradition for the football team to stay on the field after games to sing along to the band’s performance of “The Eyes of Texas.” However, as the student body became more and more aware of the song’s ties to minstrel shows and, reportedly, a saying by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, more and more athletes began to refuse to stay on the field and sing the song.

All this came to a head in a football game against Oklahoma last October, when only a single player stayed on the field when the song played. This enraged many of UT Austin’s donors and resulted in a flood of angry emails that came to light at the beginning of this month. Donors demanded not only that the song continue to be played as UT Austin’s school spirit song, but also that athletes continue the traditions surrounding it.

As a result, waves of panic ran through the administration. President of the Longhorn Alumni Band Charitable Fund Board of Trustees Kent Kostka told the The Texas Tribune, “[Alumni] are pulling planned gifts, canceling donations, walking away from causes and programs that have been their passion for years, even decades, and turning away in disgust. Last night one texted me at 1:00 a.m., trying to find a way to revoke a seven-figure donation." Kostka added, "This is not hyperbole or exaggeration. Real damage is being done every day by the ongoing silence.”

In an attempt to reconcile the student body and the upset alumni donors, the university commissioned a committee to research the meaning and origins of the song. Last Tuesday, the committee released a paper on its findings.

While the committee concluded that there was no concrete evidence to support the rumor that the song was based on a saying of Robert E. Lee’s, it confirmed that “The Eyes of Texas” made its debut at a minstrel show in which blackface was used. However, as the lyrics were not written in the minstrel dialect, the committee argued that the timing of its debut, while unfortunate, was simply in parody of the university's then-president, who attended the show. Furthermore, while the tune of the song is borrowed from “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” a racist song which has historically been used to caricature Black railroad workers, the committee found no traces of slavery in the lyrics of “The Eyes of Texas.”

As a result of the committee’s findings, “The Eyes of Texas” remains UT Austin’s school spirit song, because, they claim, there is no “racist intent”. However, the committee conceded, the university must be accountable for its past, and the way in which it debuted. While the song will continue to be played, including at sporting events, the university will not mandate the participation of its athletes.

Needless to say, this was a compromise that truly satisfied neither side. It also goes to show that, not unexpectedly, the university decided that while it could not ignore the will of the student body, the value of having donor support was significant enough to continue to allow the song to be played and celebrated despite very strong ties to past societal practices that were undoubtedly racist. Ultimately, this compromise was a band-aid on a very deep wound separating the student body from a far more conservative and traditional group of donors. Going forward, similar incidents requiring a reexamination of the university’s present practices passed down from a problematic past are bound to occur, and, sooner or later, the university will have to solidify its stance once and for all.