FAYETTEVILLE — A group letter from 34 family members of former U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright sent last week defended him as “an honorable man, great statesman and visionary educator” to the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees.
Fulbright’s legacy on the Fayetteville campus is being reconsidered given his legislative record supporting segregation and opposing civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. He is perhaps best known for introducing legislation in 1945 that created the international education exchange program named after him.
No action has been taken by university officials since a campus committee recommended last month that a statue of Fulbright be removed from its campus location outside the Old Main building and that his name be stripped from the university’s arts and sciences college.
“To a person we condemn racial oppression and inequality,” states the Fulbright family letter dated May 18. “While we in no way invalidate the feelings of the individuals who have voiced their desire to have his statue and name removed from the Fayetteville campus, we urge you to resist the emotion of the moment and to move with serious, thoughtful deliberation before rendering your decisions. The Senator has earned this right.”
In the letter, the family refers to “recent and public condemnations of early political actions taken by the Senator.”
“His long congressional career, while not perfect, evolved just as his state and country grew in their awareness,” the letter states.
The letter was released to the Democrat-Gazette under the state's public disclosure law.
Campus committee members reviewing Fulbright’s legacy included faculty members, staff, students and alumni who met virtually during the covid-19 pandemic over a time period of nine months while hearing from historians, biographers and others, according to university records.
The group had voted 11 to 5, with three members absent, to remove Fulbright’s name from the university’s arts and sciences college. The University of Arkansas Board of Trustees in 1981 approved naming the college after Fulbright 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.
The committee voted 15-1, with three absent, to remove the bronze statue of Fulbright from campus. The statue was dedicated in 2002.
"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."