picture of statue of J. William Fulbright at the University of Arkansas campus
MONUMENTAL DISAGREEMENT: It’s a statue to segregation and must go, some say. Murray Williams (Creative Commons)

If everyone could agree that there is considerable irrationality, from the right and the left, in what they call the “cancel culture” movement, we might also agree that the late and often inscrutable J. William Fulbright offers a solution. Luminaries at the University of Arkansas, as you know, are engaged in a long reflection about how far to go in desanctifying Sen. Fulbright, whose modest statue has stood for a few years outside a building on the sprawling Fayetteville campus and whose name adorns one of the university’s divisions. Once the president of the university — he was fired by a virulently racist governor — Fulbright has to be unvenerated now because his record on civil rights back in the 1950s and 1960s was only moderately better than nearly all other Southern politicians of the time.

The parallels are far from exact, but the Fulbright dememorialization is something like Arkansas newspaper publisher Walter Hussman Jr.’s problems in North Carolina. There, students and faculty are complaining about Hussman’s successful interference in the hiring of a Pulitzer-honored Black journalist for the faculty of the university’s school of journalism after Hussman pledged $25 million to the school in exchange for naming it for him. His contract with the university bars it from removing Hussman’s name from the school once his estate has paid the last of the $25 million in the distant future, although it may permit removing his name before the final payment.

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This all started, quite justly, a decade ago with the movement to remove from public spaces the memorials to men who, to preserve slavery, revolted against the United States. The statues were mainly of Gen. Robert E. Lee and generic Confederate soldiers and were erected across the South in the early decades of the 20th century, a period labeled with the historical myth known as The Lost Cause — the theory that the rebellion against the United States in 1861 was a noble effort to preserve or resurrect not necessarily slavery, but the perfect social order of the old South. History books were altered to reflect better on the Confederate cause and the later Jim Crow laws that preserved all forms of segregation for nearly 100 years after the war. Lee and the pedestaled soldiers started coming down, or at least removed from public grounds, and there were demands from civil rights champions that government facilities and institutions, including military posts like Fort Braxton Bragg, also remove the names of more obscure Confederate generals who lost the war.

Everyone is welcome to his own view about which movement, or neither, has the moral high ground — to commemorate treason against the United States because the white people of the South revered the rebels or to stop ennobling the men who either led the insurrection or extolled those who did.

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But how far should it go? The case of Bill Fulbright suggests a good demarcation point.

Moving the Fulbright statue and deleting his name from the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences are supposed to be in order because he was one of the signatories of the Southern Manifesto — the 1956 credo condemning the Supreme Court’s school-integration decision, Brown v. Board of Education, and proposing to use “all lawful means” to reverse it. The modern version is that Fulbright either wrote the manifesto or was its principal mover and that it was his conniving that forced Gov. Orval E. Faubus in 1957 to send troops to Central High School to prevent Black youngsters from going to school with whites.

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There is little substance to either charge. While Fulbright was seen as a patrician by colleagues and probably most of his voters, and he could never be accused of being an egalitarian — he voted against all the civil rights bills of the era, the ineffectual voting-rights acts of 1957 and 1960 and the substantive ones of 1964, 1965 and 1968 — his crime really was moderation. (He did break with other Southerners in 1970 and voted to extend the Voting Rights Act. If it counts for anything, he also was one of only two Southern members of Congress who publicly denounced the bombing in 1963 of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham by white supremacists, which killed four Black girls and injured many more.)

Whenever he was pressed, Fulbright adopted the common position of Southern moderates of the era: The duty of Southern white leaders and institutions was to press forward with education and social services to overcome the centuries of oppression. Education, he figured, would eventually eradicate prejudice and bring Blacks into the mainstream. 

Like a few others, such as Arkansas’s beloved congressman Brooks Hays, he steered a quiet course that would avoid certain defeat at his next election. When Sen. Strom Thurmond (then a South Carolina Democrat) drafted the Southern Manifesto, Fulbright told his colleagues he would never sign it. Eventually, to mollify Fulbright and perhaps others, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia (the Senate office building is named for him) revised the Manifesto to remove language that called on states to disobey the law through long-discredited doctrines like nullification. Arkansas’s segregationist hotspur, Jim Johnson, was advocating that course in Arkansas and got a nullification law into the Arkansas Constitution that year. The other seven members of the Arkansas delegation signed the revised manifesto and Fulbright quietly went along. Only three Southern senators did not sign it: Lyndon Johnson of Texas, who begged off because as the Senate majority leader he shouldn’t take a position either way; Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, who was making his final run for the Democratic nomination for president that summer and signing the manifesto would have thwarted his nomination (he lost to Adlai Stevenson anyway); and the liberal Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee, who was later defeated by the segregationist Republican Bill Brock.

Picture of J. William Fulbright

COMPLICATED LEGACY: Fulbright’s record includes good, bad and ugly.

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Like most Southern senators and congressmen, Fulbright in 1962 voted against referring the 24th Amendment, which outlawed the poll tax for federal elections, to the states. Poll taxes were the Jim Crow stratagem adopted by Southern states early in the century to diminish Black voting. Opponents like Fulbright said voting rules were reserved for the states. But two years later, he supported ratification of the state-written constitutional amendment ending the poll tax in all Arkansas elections and prohibiting the state from ever adding any qualification to vote beyond registration. Arkansas voters adopted the state amendment, but Arkansas is one of only five states — the others are Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Virginia — where the legislatures still have not ratified the 24th amendment.

Far from being the provocateur who forced Faubus to take a stand against integrating the schools in 1957, Fulbright was criticized for taking a powder as the school crisis approached that August. He was in London working on foreign affairs, which were the marrow of his 32-year career in Congress. None of the Arkansas delegation tried to persuade Faubus from his reckless course, unless you count Brooks Hays, the longtime congressman who tried to work out a settlement between Faubus and President Dwight Eisenhower and for his effort was defeated a year later by Dale Alford, a write-in segregationist.

Fulbright’s poor record on civil rights should be adjusted to reflect what he did and said both before and after the Brown decision and the congressional civil rights battles of the 1960s. When President Richard Nixon, advancing the Republican Southern Strategy, sought to stack the Supreme Court with conservatives who would satisfy Southern foes of civil rights, Fulbright, more than any other Southern senator, tried to foil the strategy. Fulbright had already abandoned the South and voted to confirm the first Black person, Thurgood Marshall, the longtime chief counsel of the NAACP, to the Supreme Court in 1961. Marshall had argued the case against school segregation before the Supreme Court in 1954. Fulbright also was one of only four Southern senators who voted not to confirm the arch-segregationist G. Harrold Carswell, a vocal white supremacist, for Supreme Court justice in 1970. In 1969, Fulbright abandoned his Southern colleagues and supported the liberal Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a civil rights champion, for majority whip of the Senate over Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana. Betraying his Southern colleagues, the junior Arkansas senator helped block President Nixon’s bill to outlaw busing as a way to integrate urban schools.

Fulbright was the only Southern senator who voted against Nixon’s nomination of William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court. During the confirmation hearings, an old memo surfaced that Rehnquist, a law clerk for Justice Robert Jackson, had written for his boss when the Supreme Court was deciding the school-integration case in 1954. The memo seemed to argue for upholding the separate-but-equal doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Rehnquist’s limp explanation that he had meant only to lay out one of several possible options for Jackson in the Brown case was sufficient for most senators outside the South, but not Fulbright. Rehnquist was confirmed 68–26.

Whether the Bill Fulbright legacy should be repudiated, celebrated in either a muted or majestic way, or just ignored altogether is a question that ought to consider more than the civil rights battles of that brief, tempestuous era. He was a Razorback football star, a Rhodes scholar who studied at Oxford, got a law degree, practiced at the U.S. Department of Justice, taught law at his alma mater, and became president of the university at the age of 34 — the youngest college president in America. When World War II broke out, Fulbright publicly declared his sympathy for the Allied cause and then in 1940 declared that it was in America’s “vital interest” to support the war against Hitler and prepare for the inevitability of joining the war to save democracy and a humane world order.

But Fulbright’s mother, Roberta, who published the Northwest Arkansas Times at Fayetteville and wrote a popular column, had opposed Homer Adkins, a Little Rock pharmacist who had used his leadership of the Ku Klux Klan to catapult himself into politics and in 1940 into the governorship. (Fulbright’s mama would become something of a rarity in the Southern publishing world. In 1954, her editorial in the Northwest Arkansas Times cheered the Supreme Court’s momentous school-integration order and induced her town, Fayetteville, to immediately integrate its schools.)

Adkins retaliated against Roberta Fulbright by stacking the university’s board of trustees and having her boy fired from the presidency in 1941. Fulbright ran for the seat in the House of Representatives from Northwest Arkansas the next year and was elected. His 2-year term gained him prominence. He was on the Foreign Relations Committee and active in the development of war and postwar policies. The House adopted the Fulbright Resolution, which declared that America would not join isolationists after the war and supported permanent peacekeeping initiatives by participating in a new global organization that would keep world peace and stymie new empire builders like Germany and Japan. It was the beginning of the United Nations.

Governor Adkins ran for the U.S. Senate in 1944 and Fulbright entered the Democratic primary against him. Adkins was and remains the most virulent racist to hold a governor’s office since Jeff Davis at the turn of the century. Adkins declared the Democratic Party the white man’s party. Circulars supporting Adkins in the ’44 race called Fulbright a “nigger lover,” an integrationist and a tool of labor unions. Adkins ran full-page newspaper ads attacking Fulbright for being the only member of the Arkansas delegation to vote for a resolution urging reinstatement of a Black Treasury Department employee who had been fired after a right-wing Texas congressman accused him of being a socialist.

Fulbright’s renown, of course, arises from none of those domestic and social controversies but from his leadership on the world stage as a member and then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, beginning with the creation of the Fulbright Cultural Exchange Program in 1945, one of the world’s most prestigious scholarships. It brought thousands of young scholars from all over the world to study in U.S. colleges with the objective of improving diplomatic and cultural relations. His opposition to the war in Vietnam eventually turned much of Congress and the public against the long and enervating war. The eventual publication of the secret Pentagon Papers underscored his wisdom.

Should those matters deserve some permanent reverence? It depends upon anyone’s notion about the ills or gains from what he did. A few years back, the university leaders and the trustees thought the old Razorback and youthful college president deserved it. Some consideration might be given to Fulbright’s last successful race, in 1968, when his opponent was his arch enemy and consummate white supremacist Jim Johnson, who famously avoided shaking hands with Blacks in that campaign with the explanation, “I’m not campaigning in the colored community.” Johnson’s son is now a state senator from Little Rock leading the campaign to shut down the teaching of the role of race in history. Fulbright also was the first Arkansas congressperson to have a Black staffer, the civil rights activist Ben Grinage.

I suggest a solution to the monument predicament. Should we tear down the Washington Monument and change the name of the capital city because the first president was a slave owner, or declare Thomas Jefferson a scourge rather than a Founding Father because he, too, profited all his life from a passel of slaves and, like Sen. Strom Thurmond long after him, got a Black woman pregnant?

Men and women should be celebrated or scorned for the big and lasting things they did in life, not for all their acts of political cowardice or the lack of scientific wisdom that later generations like us possess. Lee and the Confederate generals did only one memorable thing: They attacked their country and killed thousands of men to preserve slavery, but finished second to Gen. U.S. Grant and his men.