The debate at the University of Texas at Austin over the presence on campus of monuments to Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston is not a new one. In 1969 a group calling itself Afro-Americans for Black Liberation made a list of demands on the campus administration that included removing these statues. Jump to August 2015 and in the wake of the mass shootings in Charleston and the very public and emotional debate about the place of Confederate iconography, including monuments, in public places it should come as no surprise that action would be taken.
OK, so here is a little history and a breakdown of the list of options that a committee issued to deal with the monuments and markers:
The panel was charged with examining six statues, as well as a plaque honoring the Confederate dead and other sympathizers of the so-called Lost Cause. All seven were commissioned after the turn of the century by George Littlefield, a Confederate veteran, UT regent and the university’s single largest donor in its first 50 years.
Originally, Littlefield’s will said the benefactor wanted to construct a bronze archway over the campus’ south entrance around which would be statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Gens. Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston, Confederate Postmaster General John Reagan and James Hogg, the first native Texan to be elected governor, whose father was a brigadier general in the Confederate Army.
Later, a statue of then-President Woodrow Wilson, who was born in Virginia, was added to the mix to alter its meaning “to become a monument of reconciliation portraying World War I as the catalyst that inspired Americans to put aside differences lingering from the Civil War.” Littlefield died in 1920, and the statues were scattered across the campus’s main mall.
One of the task force’s recommendations was to move just the Davis statue, as well as an inscription near the Littlefield Fountain that honors “the men and women of the Confederacy who fought with valor and suffered with fortitude that states’ right be maintained and … who gave their possessions and of their lives that free government be made secure to the peoples of the earth.”
The other recommendations give [university president] Fenves the option to relocate several or all of the other five statues to a museum or exhibit elsewhere on campus, such as the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History or the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art. The Texas Memorial Museum, Harry Ransom Center or even the Littlefield home, all on UT’s campus, are other possibilities.
Today President Fenves announced that the Davis monument will be moved to a campus museum where it can be properly interpreted. Lee and Johnston, however, will remain along with the other monuments and markers. Here is how Fenves explained his decision re: Davis:
While every historical figure leaves a mixed legacy, I believe Jefferson Davis is in a separate category, and that it is not in the university’s best interest to continue commemorating him on our Main Mall. Davis had few ties to Texas; he played a unique role in the history of the American South that is best explained and understood through an educational exhibit.
What that “separate category might be Fenves does not say, but I suspect it has something to do with leading a nation committed to the establishment of a slaveholding republic. As for Lee and Johnston:
The other four figures of the Littlefield Memorial will remain in place. James Stephen Hogg, Albert Sidney Johnston, and John Reagan had deep ties to Texas. Robert E. Lee’s complicated legacy to Texas and the nation should not be reduced to his role in the Civil War.
I find this to be utterly unsatisfying as an explanation, not because I want one or all of these monuments removed, but because it fails to call attention to the nature of the problem that lies at the center of this campus debate. Why must the president of a university be so incredibly vague in a statement that is intended to bring to a close a very contentious debate? Lee’s “complicated legacy” is also left unexplained by the president. Whatever interpretation or explanation held by the president that justified moving Davis can likely be applied to Lee and Johnston.
All of them committed their lives to bringing about the same thing. Regardless of the decision made today, let’s at least be honest about that, especially on a campus of higher learning.