Jeff Davis comes down at last

September 1, 2015

Memorials to the Confederacy, like the statue of Jefferson Davis removed at the University of Texas, are part of a legacy of entrenched racism, writes Mukund Rathi.

EMBLAZONED ON the main building of the University of Texas (UT) at Austin campus, beneath the 30-story clock tower, are the words: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free."

This is a fine mission statement for a flagship public university. Until this week, however, there was a glaring contradiction for anyone standing on the Main Mall. Less than 300 feet away from the tower stood a life-size statue of the former president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, looking over the South Mall lawns and classroom buildings.

The statue was taken down--along with a statue of Woodrow Wilson--on the morning of August 30, a welcome but long-overdue step, just after the one-year anniversary of the Black Lives Matter movement emerging into the national spotlight.

There is, however, a long way to go in making UT campus a space free of racist hate and oppression, even in the limited realm of symbols. UT has racist statues aplenty, including other Confederate figures displayed proudly on the South Mall. "The statues represent racism. They represent Jim Crow, hatred and slavery," says Sandra Reed.

Taking down the statue of Jefferson Davis at the University of Texas
Taking down the statue of Jefferson Davis at the University of Texas

For over 15 years, Sandra has been on the front lines of the struggle against racism in Bastrop, Texas, less than an hour's drive east from Austin. Fighting for Black lives is particularly difficult in Texas, where legal lynchings are carried out regularly, not only by cops, but also in the state's execution chamber.

Sandra's son, Rodney Reed, has been on death row since 1998--and, like others among the hundreds that Texas has executed or is planning to execute, he is innocent. Rodney was convicted in 1998 of murdering a white woman, Stacey Stites, with whom he was having an affair. The evidence points to Stacey's then-fiancé Jimmy Fennell, a former police officer who is currently imprisoned for raping a woman in his custody, as the one who murdered her.

Years of struggle by the Reed family and their supporters won Rodney a stay of execution in February 2015. Why does Rodney remain behind bars? Sandra again answers with clarity: "The racism of the statues is key to all of this. The separation of people, the bias--all of that was done to my son. He had a Jim Crow trial."

Sandra points out that there is a long-standing symbol that sums up "all of these tactics they used to wrongfully convict my son"--the fact that police never treated Fennell as a real suspect, that the court-appointed defense hardly called any of Rodney's witnesses, that the prosecutors withheld evidence, and that the jury was all white.

On the lawn in front of the Bastrop County Courthouse is a large monument with two crossed Confederate flags and the words of a Confederate war song "Lest We Forget." Sandra Reed is leading the call for the monument to be taken down, a call endorsed by the Elgin NAACP, and one that she says many in Bastrop are agreeable to.

Sandra explains that most people in Bastrop feel "basically the same as I do. There are always negative people, but on the whole, people feel that it no longer represents us now, and it shouldn't. A lot of people of all cultures rolled by that monument all their lives, but never took the time to read it or understand it. Now that we brought it to their attention, people are reading it and saying 'oh my God, no.'"

SUCH CONFEDERATE monuments are not simply remnants of a bygone era--they are part of a concerted attempt to maintain white supremacist ideology both on campus and in broader society.

Following the end of Reconstruction, the former Confederates undertook a reactionary campaign to, among other things, re-subjugate Blacks and establish a myth about the Confederacy and the Civil War. The refrains of this myth are irritatingly familiar: the Civil War was over "states' rights," it was a "war of Northern aggression," the Confederate figures were "great statesmen" who at worst "made some mistakes."

George Littlefield, a Confederate veteran, banker, and rancher who descended from a large slaveholding family, was driven by these myths about history. At the turn of the 19th century, Littlefield and other veterans funded the construction of a monument in front of the Texas state Capitol building in Austin, which depicts Jefferson Davis on a pedestal, surrounded by Confederate soldiers. The monument states that they "died for states' rights."

Littlefield became a champion for reaction at then-segregated UT Austin after being appointed to the Board of Regents in 1911. Among other things, he successfully removed textbooks that, as the historian Alexander Mendoza describes, "dared to describe the Civil War as a 'Slaveholders' War' and praised President Abraham Lincoln for the preservation of the Union."

In 1918, Littlefield wrote his final will, which contained his final contribution to establishing white supremacy on the UT campus. With a donation of $250,000, he (and the pro-Confederate organizations) demanded the construction of a "massive bronze arch over the south end of campus" that would prominently feature leaders of the Confederacy.

The design was modified after he died in 1920--the statues were spread out over the South Mall--but the figures themselves remained, as did the general meaning: honor the Confederacy and pretend that doesn't mean support for slavery and white supremacy.

There were six statues in the South Mall--Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Albert Johnston, John Reagan, Woodrow Wilson and James Hogg--four of them Confederates and five of them unapologetic racists. At the southern end of the Mall is the Littlefield Fountain, and near it is the infamous inscription that the Confederacy fought for "states' rights to be maintained."

This myth is clearly untrue. Historian James Loewen has pointed out that no Southern state addressed states' rights or civil liberties as primary motivations in secession documents. In South Carolina, the first state to secede, the secession convention's declaration attacks Northern states for "an increasing the institution of slavery" and their supposed refusal to properly enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Loewen points out that South Carolina was itself "against states' rights, whenever Northern states have tried to exercise those rights in ways that undermined slavery."

So the Littlefield Fountain myth isn't just untrue--it's the opposite of the truth. If "the truth shall make you free," why has a lie and its supporting statues been a permanent feature on the UT campus for almost a century?

IN JUNE 2015, recently appointed UT President Gregory Fenves established a task force on "historical representation of statuary at UT Austin," and it delivered its final report in August. The report, while offering a critical history of Littlefield, points out that "he is known as 'the University of Texas' largest single financial supporter in the first 50 years of the institution's existence.'"

This gets to a core problem with "truth" under capitalism--we live in a system which values money over actual truth or democracy, and flagship public universities are not exempt. Thus, the racist statues have survived for decades despite repeated challenges that began during the social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s.

Students, faculty and other supporters continued to speak out against the Confederate statues, and in 2003, then-UT President Larry Faulkner formed a task force "on racial respect and fairness." Its final report recommended the creation of yet another task force to specifically address the statues. Faulkner ultimately took no action on the statues and deferred to incoming UT President Bill Powers in 2006. Powers continued the policy of inaction on the Confederate statues, along with repeating some of the previous appeasement concessions.

Following the racist massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, in June of this year, campaigns against the Confederate flag and monuments gained momentum nationally as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. This reverberated strongly at UT, which has been repeatedly rocked by racist scandals in recent years, including balloons filled with bleach or water thrown at people of color in campus-adjacent neighborhoods; racist fraternity parties, with themes like "border control"; and a student organization calling for a "catch the illegal immigrant game."

New UT student government leaders pushed for and successfully passed a resolution calling for the removal of the statue of Jefferson Davis. With wide support from the student body, along with repeated vandalism of the Confederate statues and national political scrutiny, it was clear that, as Fenves's task force would later put it, "doing nothing was not a viable option."

However, Powers continued doing just that until he left the university, deferring to Fenves, who was appointed in June of this year and promptly formed the task force. The final report provided multiple options on the way forward, including the removal of all Confederate statues. As a university administrator, however, Fenves had an institutional imperative to prioritize one of the task force's guiding principles: "Show respect for donor intent." The task force notes that respecting "donor intent" (that of Littlefield) requires changing the statues as little as possible.

The removal of the Davis statue is a victory for the Black Lives Matter movement and members of oppressed communities at UT, but Fenves' decision to limit the scope of this removal is a shameful concession to Littlefield's legacy of white supremacy.

The reality is that, as Sandra Reed reflects, "We've come a long way, and we still have a long way." Rodney Reed is still on death row in Texas, as are many others in the state and across the country. The family of Larry Jackson, who was executed by Austin police in 2013, continues to wait for justice, as do so many others.

A stone pedestal remains on campus where the Davis statue used to stand, and his titles are engraved on it: "President of the Confederate States," "Secretary of War of the United States," and so on. If you look closely, you can still see the imprint of "Black Lives Matter" graffiti that was washed off.

Members of the campus community used to walk by this statue and feel its glare, a constant reminder of the white supremacy we live under. Now, they will walk by and hopefully see it as a reminder of where to go from here.

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