AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – The University of Texas’ abrupt decision to remove Confederate statues in the middle of the night after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, raises the question of whether other public universities, cities and towns across the state will follow its lead.
Texas wasn’t the first prominent school to take down such monuments – Duke University removed a damaged Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee statue Saturday – but its stature as one of the country’s largest public universities could influence others. And in a state that has the most Confederate symbols except for Virginia, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a movement to get similar symbols removed could gain momentum.
University of Texas President Greg Fenves, who said such monuments have become “symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism,” cited the Charlottesville violence as a catalyst for his Sunday night order to move statues of Lee, Confederate Gen. Albert Sydney Johnston and Confederate Postmaster John H. Reagan from a main area of the Austin campus to a history museum. Crews had them down in just a few hours and also removed a statue of former Gov. James Stephen Hogg, whose likeness will be placed in another spot on campus.
“The historical and cultural significance of the Confederate statues on our campus – and the connections that individuals have with them – are severely compromised by what they symbolize,” Fenves said. “Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African-Americans. That remains true today for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry.”
Bill McRaven, chancellor of the 14-campus University of Texas System and Fenves’ boss, supported moving the statues and said they are better suited for a history museum. He also noted the potential for violence as the national debate over Confederate memorials intensifies.
“The safety of our students and a higher learning environment that promotes civility, unity and diversity must prevail, and the removal and relocation of the statues is an important step forward,” McRaven said.
The Texas A&M University System, which includes the historically black Prairie View A&M University, will review its history artifacts, Chancellor John Sharp said. However, he and Texas A&M University President Michael K. Young insisted that the statue of former school president, Texas governor and Confederate Gen. Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross – the oldest one on the flagship campus – will remain.
Dedicated in 1918, the Ross statue is considered a good luck charm. Students place money and other items at its feet.
“Without Sul Ross, neither Texas A&M University nor Prairie View A&M University would likely exist today. He saved our school and Prairie View through his consistent advocacy in the face of those who persistently wanted to close us down,” Young said.
Gary Bledsoe, president of the NAACP’s Texas chapter, praised the move by the University of Texas.
“I hope others in the state can see fit to recognize the humanity of other citizens,” Bledsoe said. “It’s a tough thing politically but it’s the right thing.”
Texas’ biggest cities had already started exploring what to do with their Confederate memorials. Even before the violence in Virginia, two San Antonio City Council members had asked that a 118-year-old monument be removed. Mayors in Dallas, Houston and Austin have announced their cities will study what to do with Confederate memorials, statues and street names.
The Texas Capitol has been a focus of the debate. The Capitol grounds have about a dozen statues and plaques dedicated to the Confederacy. State Rep. Eric Johnson, a Democrat from Dallas who is black, has called for the removal of a 60-year-old plaque outside his office door that rejects slavery as an underlying cause of the Civil War.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who graduated from the university in 1981, did not immediately comment Monday. In a statement last week he condemned racism but said tearing down Confederate monuments “won’t erase our nation’s past.”
Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick echoed that stance Monday in an interview with Dallas conservative talk-radio host Mark Davis. Patrick said he was given no advance notice the University of Texas was removing the statues.
“Tearing it down in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness, for whatever excuse they want to give – ‘Well, we didn’t want any rallies, we didn’t want any violence, we didn’t want any hatred,'” Patrick said. “Guys, our universities are supposed to be where we learn about history and not repeat those moments of the past. And there was no discussion here.”
The Confederate statues at the University of Texas had been targeted by vandalism in the past. In 2015, Fenves ordered a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis removed from a prominent place on campus and put in the Briscoe Center for American History, where the other Confederate statues will now go.
The Davis statue didn’t come down without a legal fight. And a lawyer who represented the Sons of Confederate Veterans in its unsuccessful lawsuit against the school promised he’ll sue again.
“We will never surrender,” the attorney, Kirk Lyons, who is employed by the North Carolina-based Southern Legal Resource Center, said Monday after hearing about the latest statue removals. “They are morally wrong and bordering on evil. It ain’t over.”
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