A further look at the ‘Eyes of Texas’

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On March 9, The University of Texas at Austin’s The Eyes of Texas History Committee released a report about UT Austin’s official song, “The Eyes of Texas.” 

Neither the report nor the committee could strip the song of its “Alma Mater” status, per the report. University President Jay Hartzell made that clear long before forming the committee in October of 2020. (They were charged with investigating the history of the Eyes of Texas, the University, and the claims of bigotry surrounding the song, as well as offering recommendations going forward.) Had that been possible, however, it is not clear that it would have mattered. Page 18 of the committee’s report explains that their “research leads [them] to surmise that intent of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ was not overtly racist, [but that] the cultural milieu that produced it was.” It goes further, attempting to rebut, in detail, the different charges of racism levied against the song. In the wake of new reporting from the Texas Tribune that a number of previously unknown, high-profile university donors, including NFL burnout Colt McCoy, pushed UT to keep the song in the weeks before President Hartzell’s announcement that they would, it’s worth taking a look at how the committee and the report address race and The Eyes of Texas.

Critics of The Eyes of Texas have contended that the song’s title is adapted from a saying attributed to Confederate general Robert E. Lee — “the eyes of the south are upon you.” William Prather, the President of UT who coined the phrase, “the eyes of Texas are upon you,” attended Washington and Lee University while Lee was the president there. According to the committee, “Lee was clearly a beloved figure to Prather, but no primary source has been found connecting the phrase as something that Lee used.” This, in part, leads the committee to conclude that the quote is likely misattributed to Lee. Historian and author of The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee, John Reeves, agrees with the committee’s assessment. He cites the fact that their report also provides written documentation of a 1900 speech to UT Medical School, in which President Prather tells the story of how General John Gregg, another member of the confederacy, told the Texas Brigade that “the eyes of General [Robert E.] Lee” were upon them. Per the speech text, President Prather then informs the students that “the eyes of Texas are upon you.” Robert E. Lee didn’t inspire the phrase behind the song’s title—another Confederate general did. “Personally,” said Reeves in an email, “I believe the connection to a Civil War battle makes it more of a lost cause song, not less.”

The committee uses the authors’ genuine support for Prather’s idea that “the eyes of Texas are upon [students]” to, in part, explain away the song’s debut at a minstrel show. Per the report, “The Eyes of Texas” was named as such to lampoon President Prather’s repeated use of the phrase. Those responsible for the song, however, did support the sentiment behind said phrase. Lyricist John Sinclair “was clear that his words [supported] Prather’s admonition to his students [that] their conduct had a direct reflection on the fledgling university, especially with legislators and local media.” Thus, while the committee characterizes the song’s minstrel show premiere, and the likely use of blackface, as “uncomfortable,” they note that Sinclair was “intentional with his words,” and the lyrics “were not written in any form of stereotypical dialect, [but] instead [crafted] to purposefully support Prather and his call to the student body.” In fact, the report adds that the song debuted at the minstrel show so that President Prather — who idolized Robert E Lee and drew inspiration for “the eyes of Texas are upon you” from a different Confederate general — would see their good-natured ribbing. (It was a fundraiser for the UT track team, and he was expected to attend.) 

In an email, Northwestern University professor of Communications and author of Stealing The Show: African-American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood, Miriam Petty, declined to comment on the “Texas-specific nature” of this matter, citing a lack of familiarity. 

She did, however, generally characterize minstrel shows as, “a format that popularized and circulated racist ideas. Whether these ideas were mobilized to expressly lampoon black folks or did it as a side effect with another target in mind,” Petty continued, “the result is largely the same; the intention is beside the point.” The debut performance of The Eyes of Texas was not the only time that the song was played at a minstrel show. From 1940-1965, the Texas Cowboys hosted minstrel shows on UT Austin’s campus, where they performed in blackface. Per the Committee’s report, “‘The Eyes’ was sung at the end of the shows, though in the role of the traditional alma matter and not as one of the acts.”

In their 50+ page report, the committee addresses and explains further charges of racism levied against The Eyes of Texas. They also want to let readers know that Sinclair himself was not a racist. One anecdote from a former classmate, for example, details how Sinclair made friends with a Black guy who used to work for him. While they certainly acknowledge that disturbing historical aspects are surrounding “The Eyes of Texas,” the committee seems to stress that things are not nearly as bad as some critics might lead you to believe. There are a number of examples of “The Eyes of Texas” being used for good and/or brightening people’s lives. This is how the committee, per page two of its report, meets its “collective charge [of supporting], in the words of lyricist John Lang Sinclair, ‘eyes of every hue.’” 11 pages later, the report notes that there is no evidence Sinclair wrote those words with diversity or inclusion in mind. 

Photo: surelyitsjohn / Wikimedia Commons

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