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Fulbright's UA statue to stay, put in context

by Jaime Adame | July 29, 2021 at 8:04 a.m.
The family of former U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright has asked the University of Arkansas board of trustees to allow Fulbright’s statue, shown in July near the west entrance of Old Main on the Fayetteville campus, to remain despite an effort to have it and Fulbright’s name removed from campus. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

The University of Arkansas System board of trustees Wednesday approved a resolution that will keep a statue of former U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright in its current spot on the Fayetteville campus but with added context to show Fulbright's "complex legacy."

None on the 10-member board opposed the resolution, which comes after a yearlong process to reconsider Fulbright given his legislative record of supporting segregation and voting against civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

Black student leaders last year called for removal of the bronze likeness of Fulbright, who is perhaps best known for introducing legislation in 1945 that created the international educational exchange program named after him.

"I think we ought to also remember that he was not only a complex man, but he was living in extremely difficult times," Cliff Gibson, a Monticello attorney and trustees board member, said at the meeting Wednesday.

The trustees vote followed a recommendation by UA System President Donald Bobbitt.

In recommending that the statue stay in place, Bobbitt went against an earlier campus committee's vote to remove the statue and against a compromise proposal from former UA Chancellor Joe Steinmetz to move the statue from its spot in a rear courtyard of the Old Main academic building -- where it was dedicated in 2002 -- to a different location on campus.

[DOCUMENT: Recommendation on J. William Fulbright statue ?»]

The resolution approved Wednesday also affirmed the board's commitment to the Fulbright College name, which has been used for UA's Arts and Sciences College since 1981. Black student leaders and the campus committee had pushed to remove Fulbright's name from the college.

A group of UA students known as the Black Student Caucus said in a statement that they were not discouraged by Wednesday's vote.

"We expected as much. We only say that it is impossible to stop change, it will happen whether any of us like it or not. We will continue to work," the group wrote.

The Black Student Caucus in June of last year promoted an online petition calling for removal of the Fulbright statue and name, doing so as part of the wider social media effort #BlackAtUark to highlight racism and inequity experienced on campus.

Mark Rushing, a UA spokesman, said in an email that there's no date yet for developing the new context to go on display about Fulbright.

"University officials will begin work on developing appropriate contextualization for the statue, as directed by the Board, but we haven't yet developed a timeline or other specifics for that process," Rushing said.

Randall Woods, a biographer of Fulbright, UA faculty member and a former dean of UA's Fulbright College, said in a phone interview that properly giving context to Fulbright would involve an indoor exhibit explaining historical circumstances and the "many pluses and minuses" of the former senator.

"You can't do context on a plaque. You can't do it. It's not possible," Woods said.


To what degree is unclear, but board documents also reflect the influence of a new state law approved by lawmakers in April, Act 1003, which prohibits removal or relocation of public monuments without a waiver from the Arkansas History Commission.

While the law creates an avenue to petition for removal or relocation of a public monument, some state lawmakers last month in a committee hearing told Bobbitt and Steinmetz that they opposed any change. Several denounced "cancel culture," and Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Little Rock, said no waiver would be granted should there be a request to move the Fulbright statue.

The resolution approved Wednesday referred directly to the law while also highlighting some of Fulbright's legacy and giving a broad description of context to be added.

The board "acknowledges the passage of Act 1003, which prohibits the removal or relocation of monuments on public property, and directs that the J. William Fulbright statue remain in its current location and that the University add contextualization to the statue that affirms the University's commitment to racial equality and acknowledges Senator Fulbright's complex legacy, including his record on international affairs, Civil Rights legislation, and racial integration," the resolution states.

In the meeting Wednesday, neither Bobbitt nor any board members brought up Act 1003. The board meeting took place in Little Rock and virtually.

Bobbitt has not responded to questions submitted to a UA System spokesman about whether he would have supported relocation of the statue if the law had not been passed.


UA's website describes Fulbright as the university's "most well-known graduate," and at age 34 he began a stint as president of the university from 1939-41 before going on to serve three decades in the U.S. Senate. He died in 1995.

Debate over the Fulbright campus legacy comes at a time of racial reckoning at many colleges, with intense scrutiny on statues and building names featuring prominent leaders from the past who promoted racially prejudiced views.

The campus committee put together under Steinmetz voted 15-1, with three members absent, to remove the statue from campus, stating: "There was a time when Black students were not welcome on our campus. 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."

The campus committee consisted of students, faculty members, alumni and staff members. It made its recommendations in April to Steinmetz, who resigned last month as UA's top administrator.


Gibson, the Monticello attorney and trustee, at the meeting Wednesday spoke about Fulbright's correspondence with civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. and noted Fulbright's 1967 vote to confirm Thurgood Marshall as the first Black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Fulbright in 1956 signed what was known as the Southern Manifesto, an effort by Southern congressmen and senators to obstruct school integration that had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka against racial segregation of public schools.

Gibson spoke about Marshall's connection to the Brown v. Board of Education case.

"Interestingly, the man that Senator Fulbright voted to confirm to the United States Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, was the lawyer who argued that case and won that case," Gibson said, calling Fulbright's vote "quite a remarkable action and statement in my mind."

Dr. Stephen Broughton, a Pine Bluff psychiatrist, chairman of the trustees board and the only Black member of the UA board, said it was "very appropriate" to include in the resolution that Fulbright voted to confirm Marshall.

"I think the fact that you said this in this particular forum is important as well," Broughton said to Gibson.

Bobbitt, in making his recommendation, read from an article published this year in Foreign Affairs. Bobbitt told board members that the article's author, Charles King, a Georgetown University professor, had shared the article with him. King is a UA graduate, according to the Georgetown University website.

"I couldn't possibly do better than the words that he used. But he talks about the fact that there were two Fulbrights: 'Fulbright's life, like most people's, was mottled. He acquiesced to awfulness yet he led areas that required political and moral courage. His failings were his country's and especially his region's. His achievements were his alone. He was brave and weak, persuasive and exasperating, prescient and short sighted, a futurist in thrall to the past.'"

Bobbitt added: "That in a nutshell, I think, both defines the term complex, but also, I think, suggests, to some extent, what I envisioned and I hope that the campus envisions in terms of contextualizing both his record and presenting it to the greater community."

Woods, the UA faculty member and Fulbright historian, in a phone interview Wednesday and in other interviews has praised Fulbright's stance opposing the Vietnam War as courageous but also has been critical of Fulbright when it comes to civil rights.

"There are reasons why he voted like he did on civil rights. I personally think he could have done more," said Woods, who was not a member of the campus committee that voted for removal of the Fulbright statue.

Voting against civil rights legislation "is what it is," Woods said.

He said other colleges have successfully gone through a "truth and reconciliation" process.

"You can't do truth in pieces. You can't cherry pick the truth. In my opinion, we're just back where we started," Woods said.


In the same vote to approve the Fulbright resolution, the trustees approved without any opposition a separate resolution to remove the name of former Arkansas Gov. Charles Brough from a UA campus dining hall.

The same UA campus committee that reviewed Fulbright's legacy considered the former governor's role in the 1919 Elaine Massacre.

Some details remain unclear about the 1919 massacre, but historians agree that an unknown number of Black residents were killed by white mobs without justification.

The UA campus committee concluded 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."

The Brough resolution states that the dining hall name goes back to 1958.

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