I re-watched the horror show yesterday in which legislators berated University of Arkansas officials for even considering moving the statue of former Sen. J. William Fulbright from a place of honor by Old Main, the symbol of the Fayetteville campus, to a place where it could be placed with more historical context about his career — segregationist, opponent of the vote for Black people, Vietnam war opponent, foreign affairs expert, namesake of an international scholarship program, UA quarterback, UA president, etc.
I can’t recommend another viewing. The demagoguery ran deep, from the stentorian recitation of quotes from an anti-communist congressman in 1963 to threats of arrest under new state law by the sponsor, a segregationist’s scion, if a bronze hair of statuary is disturbed.
But I missed mentioning a nuance in the remarks. It could prove significant.
On the griddle were Chancellor Joe Steinmetz and UA System President Donald Bobbitt. Steinmetz rejected a study committee’s suggestion to remove the statue and Fulbright’s name from the college of arts and sciences. He recommended instead keeping the name and relocating the statue. The next step is for Bobbitt to decide on Steinmetz’s recommendation. He said he’s gathering opinions. He did seem to say he believed the campus could justify a waiver under the new historic monument law by making a case for a location in a “more secure” place on campus.
But Bobbitt also said this in outlining the process in response to a question from Sen. Trent Garner on whether the Board of Trustees would have the final say:
“In fact, my recommendations may be that I don’t take it to the board. That I’m comfortable with the way things are right now and I don’t see the need for the board to take up the issue unless they choose to do so.”
The status quo solution. Ever popular in Arkansas. Except with those hungry for change.
Such a decision would take the Board of Trustees off the hook. In the face of the legislative outcry, they might not be amenable to a Fulbright statue move with the UA already in hot water over a land deal in East Arkansas. Given that nine of the 10 trustees are white; nine of the 10 are men and all of them are well-off and eight of 10 are Republican appointees, I’d be surprised to find among them a groundswell for a campus cleansing of Fulbright’s legacy under the best of circumstances.
If Bobbitt does endorse Steinmetz’s recommendation and the Board of Trustees DID approve it, the controversy would only be beginning.
The UA would have to apply to the state History Commission for a waiver. Its rules for implementation of the new monument preservation law (intended particularly to preserve honors for segregationists and slavery protectors, fitting in the Fulbright case at least in part) have not been written yet. When they are, the UA could make its case for a waiver. The history commission would get uncommon public attention.
If the author of the law has his way, no exceptions will be allowed except for movement to accommodate a utility line. And you can imagine the howling from legislators like Garner, Clark, Rapert, Johnson and others if the campus argued that the statue wasn’t safe in its current location. Bend to commie anarchist BLM Antifa lovers? I can hear the outrage now. And you can be sure the Johnny Reb lawyer would be in court in a twinkling should the history commission endorse the movement of a shrine to an opponent of voting rights for Black people.
A decision to preserve the status quo would be a painful blow to those who’ve advocated a downgrade of Fulbright on campus. They’d view it as a victory for, if not white supremacy, white privilege. And they wouldn’t be far off the mark. And that wouldn’t be the end of it either.