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Fulbright statue, designation at UA need to go, panel says

by Jaime Adame | April 29, 2021 at 7:02 a.m.
The statue of J. William Fulbright, dedicated in 2002, stands near the west entrance of Old Main on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

A University of Arkansas, Fayetteville committee has recommended the removal of a statue of former U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright from its campus location and that his name be stripped from the university's arts and sciences college.

The committee -- comprised of students, faculty and staff members, and alumni -- also recommended that the name of a former Arkansas governor, Charles Brough, be removed from a campus dining hall.

A committee review of their legacies included examining Fulbright's stance on integration and civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, and Brough's role in the 1919 Elaine Massacre.

"There was a time when Black students were not welcome on our campus," stated the committee's recommendation to remove the statue. "J. William Fulbright, while Senator, voted against the interests of Black students, and supported values antithetical to the university. For many, the statue is a memorial to those segregationist values and a daily reminder to our Black students of that time."

[DOCUMENT: Read the committee’s full recommendations » arkansasonline.com/429rec/]

In a statement posted Wednesday on UA's website, Chancellor Joe Steinmetz said the next steps for the campus include "gathering feedback on the recommendations, considering additional input and perspectives from a wide range of university stakeholders, including faculty, staff, alumni and students."

A university statement said the feedback process will conclude in late May and that any name changes must be approved by the university system's board of trustees.

"This matter is complicated by Sen. Fulbright's deep connections to the state and university, and important international contributions, at the same time acknowledging that the name causes pain for some on our campus, which is unfortunate," Steinmetz said.

Apart from UA deliberations about the statue, a bill put on the desk of Gov. Asa Hutchinson restricts the removal of public monuments. Senate Bill 553 does allow for the Arkansas Historical Commission to approve petitions seeking removal of a monument.

SB553 "protects" the Fulbright statue, Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, said in a phone interview.

[DOCUMENT: Senate Bill 553 ?» arkansasonline.com/429bill/]

"The bill was not specifically aimed at that or any other statue," Johnson said. "It protects the Sen. Fulbright statue, it protects Confederate monuments, it protects the Little Rock Nine memorial on the Capitol grounds."

Fulbright is perhaps best-known for introducing legislation in 1945 that created the international education exchange program named after him.

Born in Missouri but raised in Fayetteville, Fulbright was a UA graduate, and before his lengthy career in the U.S. Senate, he was the university's president from 1939-41.

Historians note his efforts to promote world peace and that he was an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam. He died in 1995, and the bronze statue of him on the UA campus was dedicated in 2002.

But a strong push began last year to reconsider the campus spotlight on Fulbright, given his legislative record. Fulbright worked with other Southern Democrats to block the racial integration of schools and participated in a filibuster against civil rights legislation.

Black student leaders at UA last year promoted a petition to remove the Fulbright statue and rename the college. They did so as part of a wave of social media posts that used the #BlackAtUARK hashtag to highlight instances of racism, inequity and inappropriate behavior experienced on campus.

The committee stated in its recommendations that it worked in response to student demands made as part of the #BlackAtUARK movement.

FULBRIGHT STATUE

By a 15-1 vote, with three members absent, the committee voted to remove the statue from its current spot outside Old Main, the university's iconic academic building.

The recommendation stated that the statue could be moved off campus to the collection of the University of Arkansas Museum or elsewhere off campus and "properly contextualized" to describe Fulbright's legacy and connection to UA.

SB553 states that a "historical monument shall not be relocated, vandalized, damaged, destroyed, removed, altered, renamed, rededicated, or otherwise disturbed," but allows for a petition process to remove a historical monument. It applies if a monument is of a "historical person" on public property.

A waiver allowing for removal of a monument may be granted if approved by a vote of the state Historical Commission, the bill states.

Jessica Owley, a University of Miami law professor who studies monument removal and relocation, in an email called SB553 "very broad."

It "could potentially limit the removal, renaming and altering of most statues in the state that represent people or events," Owley said.

"Under this law, a statue of Fulbright (or really anyone else) on public land could not be relocated, removed, altered, renamed, or rededicated without a waiver from the Arkansas History Commission. Even where a waiver is granted, the statue must be preserved to the greatest extent possible," Owley said.

Johnson, the bill's lead sponsor, said he first worked on the bill two years ago. While emphasizing that the bill is not about any individual statue, Johnson said he disagreed with efforts to remove Fulbright from his place on the UA campus.

"I'm not OK with cancel culture on Sen. Fulbright," Johnson said, adding that "it's hard to take a person in the mid-20th century and look at him through 21st century eyes."

Johnson said he knew Fulbright and considered him a friend.

UA spokesman Mark Rushing said in an email Friday that the "university will follow the law concerning any recommendations or decisions on these matters."

FULBRIGHT COMMITTEE

Daniel Webster, president of the UA Black Students Association, a registered student organization, served on the committee.

Historians and historical groups spoke at the group's virtual meetings "to get as much information as we could, as a committee, about Fulbright and in totality, and Brough in totality," said Webster, 22.

The committee was announced in August, and Webster said the length of time it took to release recommendations had to do with efforts to properly present the group's reasoning.

"Other people on the committee wanted to make sure the arguments and the way the recommendations were presented left no sort of questions about the intentions and reasoning of the committee," Webster said, adding that he agreed with all of the recommendations.

He said vote totals were released but not individual votes because some on the committee represented groups rather than providing their own opinions.

Many committee members said they thought it was important to consider people who might oppose the recommendations and see "how can we provide enough evidence or explanation in order to try to mitigate some of the backlash."

Regarding the Fulbright name, the committee stated that the university "needs to be an equally welcoming place for all students from across the state and beyond, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality and gender."

"The committee considers that it is not its charge to pass final judgment on the legacy of the Senator. The placement and use of the Senator's name and statue to celebrate Fulbright's international achievements is not conducive to fully and unambiguously representing the contradictory record of Senator Fulbright and thus acts as an endorsement of his full record including opposition to matters of civil rights," the recommendation stated.

"Students of all races, but especially Black students, have told the committee that they find the J. William Fulbright statue and the name of the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences to be unwelcoming, and they have articulated rational reasons for their sense of alienation," the recommendation stated, going on to note portions of Fulbright's record such as votes against civil rights bills in 1957 and 1964.

The University of Arkansas System board of trustees approved the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences name in 1981 after a $1 million gift from the Stephens Charitable Trust. An article in the Arkansas Gazette described Jackson Stephens, at the time the chairman and CEO of the investment banking firm Stephens Inc., as a longtime friend of Fulbright.

BROUGH'S NAME

The committee voted 16-0, with three absent, to remove Brough's name from a campus dining hall.

In its recommendation, it described the 1919 Elaine Massacre, which took place when Brough was governor, as "the deadliest act of racial violence in Arkansas."

The number of people who died remains unknown, but historians agree there were unjustifiable killings by white mobs.

The committee's recommendation states that Brough "blamed Black people for the violence, and empowered those who oversaw the unjust judicial process that sent scores of Black men to prison and condemned twelve men to death," calling his role "unforgiveable."

After the three recommendations, the committee emphasized the importance of making the changes.

"The committee recognizes that these recommendations alone will not transform the University of Arkansas into a wholly equitable and antiracist campus. Nonetheless, public memorials, statues and dedications need to be changed if they reinforce historic racism," the committee stated.

No matter the next steps and whether the recommendations are followed, "we'll at least know how the committee felt for years to come, and I think that was really important," Webster said.

Tyrah Jackson (right) of Pine Bluff, a student at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, leads a group of students and members of the campus community on a march last month to call for the school to disassociate from J. William Fulbright and Charles Brough.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
Tyrah Jackson (right) of Pine Bluff, a student at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, leads a group of students and members of the campus community on a march last month to call for the school to disassociate from J. William Fulbright and Charles Brough. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
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