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Committee Deems 'Eyes Of Texas' Not 'Overtly Racist'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to questions about a song that is more than a hundred years old and whether it is still appropriate. The song - the alma mater at the University of Texas. After months of review, a panel has decided "Eyes Of Texas" is not, quote, "overtly racist." The school song is played before football games, after football games. Student athletes had been required to stand for it. But protests erupted on campus as the racial reckoning reverberated across the country in this past year. Jimmy Maas of member station KUT joins us now with the latest. And one thing to note - though its newsroom is independent, KUT's broadcast license is held by the University of Texas.

Jimmy, welcome.

JIMMY MAAS, BYLINE: Thank you.

KELLY: So what's the history here? Where did the song "Eyes Of Texas" come from?

MAAS: Well, "The Eyes Of Texas" began - well, the common lore was it started around the turn of the last century. The then-president of the school had - this is the way the lore went - had a fondness for the way Robert E. Lee finished speeches with, the eyes of the South upon - are upon you. And then he subsequently cribbed some of those lines and put them into his own speeches - the eyes of Texas are upon you - so much so that the student body at the time, all white men, would spoof that in a song and perform it at the popular entertainment of the time, minstrel shows. And while they don't have exact evidence of it, they probably were in blackface when they did it.

KELLY: So the committee, of course, took that into account but must have found other things in its research to conclude that the song is not overtly racist.

MAAS: Well, as - you know, when you - like I said, this was the lore, and they actually put, you know - they went down and did the deep research, as academics tend to do. And they went to Washington University, where - or Washington College at the time where Robert E. Lee was president. And apparently, there is no evidence that he ever ended any of his speeches with that phrase. And so he may have had absolutely nothing to do with the origin of the song.

And like I said, while they understand that probably it was performed in blackface, they also talked to the people who are descendants of the people that wrote the song. And they looked at their notes and whatnot, and they found that, really, it was just to make fun of the school president at the time. And of course, he embraced the song, and that's how it sort of came to be.

KELLY: What has been the reaction there to today's decision?

MAAS: Well, there is - it's - there's a lot of frustration and anger from alumni and the donor base over time since this - you know, the committee was announced in the fall. And there - they threatened to stop contributing to the university because the university and others weren't supporting this symbol that was important to them. Today university president said everything at Texas comes down to research, teaching and changing the world. He said the Eyes History Committee has done the research, and now it's the school's turn to focus on teaching and fostering an inclusive campus where all are welcome.

I also spoke with a committee member, former UT football player Quan Cosby. He said the committee was focusing on the song while much of the university and elsewhere turned to discuss racial reckoning and debates about standing for the national anthem going on in the U.S.

QUAN COSBY: I just thought it got really political. It wasn't about the song. It wasn't even about UT. It just was about a bunch of folks voicing their political perspectives and beliefs and trying to turn the song into the anthem opposed to Longhorn nation kind of sitting back and finding the best resolution.

MAAS: He's just one of 26 members on that committee.

KELLY: All right. Jimmy Maas of member station KUT in Austin, Texas, reporting there on the latest that is happening with "The Eyes Of Texas" song. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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