Overshown said the threats don’t faze him, but opponents of the song face an even higher obstacle: the university donors who use their money to preserve the status quo. This week, The Texas Tribune published disturbing emails that some of the school’s wealthiest donors sent to Hartzell after a close loss to the rival Oklahoma Sooners in October. Donors and alumni not only racially taunted the school’s Black players, but also threatened to pull their financial support.
One threatened to take back a $1 million donation. According to the Tribune, another donor wrote:
It’s time for you to put the foot down and make it perfectly clear that the heritage of Texas will not be lost. It is sad that it is offending the blacks. As I said before the blacks are free and it’s time for them to move on to another state where everything is in their favor.
Another railed against “cancel culture”—which, among conservatives, has become a reflexive epithet meant to reframe racial-justice activism as an assault on their own free expression.
If anyone is engaging in so-called cancel culture, it’s the donors, who are suppressing the players’ right to speak their mind. The Tribune also reported that after the Oklahoma game, Texas officials forced football players to remain on the field as “The Eyes of Texas” was played, because they feared further backlash from donors and boosters. “We simply asked for their help—no one was forced or required to do so,” Athletic Director Chris Del Conte told the Tribune, in a statement. That distinction seems to be a matter of semantics.
The university has been wrestling with the troubling nature of “The Eyes of Texas” for years. The song’s title was inspired by William Prather, a former University of Texas president whose catchphrase was “The eyes of Texas are upon you.” By his own account, Prather borrowed the expression from Robert E. Lee, who was fond of telling people, “The eyes of the South are upon you.” As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer has pointed out, the continued veneration of Lee—a Confederate general and slave owner—is a “key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one.”
Read: The myth of the kindly General Lee
Two of Prather’s students, Lewis Johnson and John L. Sinclair, used his version of Lee’s saying to create “The Eyes of Texas,” which they set to the folk tune “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”—another song with a troublingly racist history. In 1903, the two students premiered their song at an annual campus minstrel show, where white musicians performed it in blackface. It became a tradition at subsequent minstrel shows and was soon embedded in the university’s culture. Some people apparently want to keep it there forever.
Caden Sterns, a defensive back who declared for the NFL draft after last season, recently asserted on Twitter that influential alumni told several Texas football players they wouldn’t be able to find jobs in Texas if they didn’t sing the school song. That threat only steeled other players’ resolve. “When I heard that,” Overshown said of Sterns’s claim, “I knew right then and there that what we were doing was big. If you have to threaten somebody with that type of threat, [they’re] definitely doing something right.”