Thanks to John Brummett for calling my attention to a movement among Black University of Arkansas students to remove the statue of former Sen. J. William Fulbright from campus and to strip his name from the college of arts and sciences.

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The senator, whose name identifies a global scholarship program, is infamously remembered for signing the Southern Manifesto in opposition to the landmark Supreme Court ruling that struck down segregated public schools. He also filibustered civil rights legislation and voted against the 1965 voting rights act. By the account of biographer Randall Woods (I got his name wrong initially), Fulbright believed education would eventually eradicate prejudice. By various accounts, he provided behind-the-scenes support to some civil rights efforts and opposed the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Harold Carswell, a civil rights foe. Still, I recall, but can’t locate, a TV interview following his defeat by Dale Bumpers in which he didn’t seem to distance himself much from his undistinguished past on civil rights.

UPDATE: James Craig Barnes, then anchor for KTHV sent me a transcript of the relevant portion of his interview with Fulbright in 1974. It’s interesting.

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It begins with a question about his opposition to a vote for blacks in primary elections in 1948 (not 1954 as Barnes put it in the interview). Fulbright says he accepts the will of the majority “right or wrong.” When asked if it was the right decision to allow black people to vote, Fulbright responds:

“I guess so. I’m not too sure. This all…when we look around the world today, you raise a very fundamental question, the performance of this democracy the last 15 years raises very serious questions. But if you want to go into the fundamentals of the democratic system of one vote for everybody the same, without any qualifications, it deserves considerable discussion. I’m not sure with the development of television, and our system and the way we run it can survive.”

Barnes pressed on:

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The interview continues with Fulbright explaining his Southern Manifesto vote as a representation of the majority will in Arkansas.

This barely scratches the surface of the Fulbright story, with all its international importance, and it’s certain to get a full airing in the #BlackAtUA era.

Brummett Tweets that Sen. Greg Leding has sent an email to UA officials supporting the students and calling for a review of all campus naming.

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Inevitably, the discussion for anyone memorialized at UA or anywhere else should consider conversions. For example, some storied names in Arkansas athletics didn’t always agree with the idea of integrated football teams.

UPDATE:  Already I’ve heard from Lee Powell, author of a Fulbright biography, with much to say on his civil rights record (not good) and alternative ideas on recognizing Fulbright’s contributions while including other elements of his record.

The subject is hard. It is hard to acknowledge or understand embedded racism and white privilege and hard to know where the corrections should begin and end.  I just learned today that the Arkansas Times has joined the Associated Press, New York Times and others in capitalizing Black as a reference to people.

I graduated from a college named for two former slave owners. One named Washington. The other named Lee, who happens to be buried on campus along with his horse. A simmering debate over coming to grips with that heritage is now at a full boil. Another graduate asked me recently what I thought about a name change and the only thing I could think to say was: “It’s an unwinnable situation.”

But maybe that was my failing. Maybe the all-but-certain short-term loss of financial support from older alumni and even some younger people of a certain political orientation would be overcome long-term by a thorough remaking of the campus image, from the name down. As it is, the name alone is two strikes with many prospective students.

I sent a letter to the alumni magazine a few years ago when black law students first forced some limited tangible acknowledgment of the school’s dark past — a bequest of slaves was a financial boon in the school’s earliest years. I cheered some of the initial steps — removing Confederate flags from the chapel, for example — and commented: “What W&L needs is more diversity and less Confederacy.”

I got some unhappy responses, including a particularly ugly letter — unsigned — from a postmark deep in the heart of Texas.

Back to Arkansas:

The Fulbright College is sensitive, you can say that.

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