FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — President Bill Clinton may be Arkansas’ best-known politician, but Sen. J. William Fulbright is near the top of the list. The late U.S. senator and former University of Arkansas president was a powerful figure in both the state and country, but a UA student group called for the removal of his prominent statue on campus after his segregationist political history was exposed in the public sphere.
The Black Student Caucus shared a petition on its Instagram page calling for UA administrators to remove the Fulbright statue outside Old Main. The statue was first dedicated in 2002, and it joined the list of monuments across the country being analyzed for their ties to racist, segregationist or Confederate history.
Fulbright, who died in 1995 after a political career that spanned three decades, used his legislative power to stymie civil rights legislation in the mid-20th century, according to Dr. Randall Woods, a distinguished history professor at the UofA and definitive Fulbright biographer. As a senator, he signed the Southern Manifesto, a document that stood in opposition to racial integration of public places. He filibustered the well-known Civil Rights Act in 1964 and voted against the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“That J. William Fulbright was a racist is indisputable,” Woods wrote in Fulbright: A Biography. “He would claim throughout his career that his position on civil rights was a matter of political expediency.”
Woods said he received early pushback from Fulbright and his associates after his book was first published, but after spending 11 consecutive days with the former senator, he came to the conclusion that Fulbright had opportunities to go against his fellow Southern legislators during the 1960s and simply chose not to.
“I think he shared some of the prejudice of his fellow white Southerners,” Woods said.
Woods wrote “Fulbright: A Biography” (https://t.co/jHRLL70cQv) in 1995. He spent eight years gathering interviews, many with Fulbright himself. 📝— Andrew Epperson (@eppersports) July 1, 2020
Many supporters, he learned, either didn’t know Fulbright’s segregationist stances or didn’t care. (2/3) #NWANews pic.twitter.com/84HRaKfUEl
The online petition had nearly 6,000 signatures by the time this story was published. The Black Student Caucus didn’t respond to several requests for a statement, but they first started calling for change by creating the #BlackAtUARK social media hashtag that went viral in June. The Twitter campaign highlighted stories of racism at the UofA.
Braziel Hatch is a Ph.D. student studying economics. He said he’s unaffiliated with the Black Student Caucus, but as an African-American himself, he understood why so many signed the petition.
“If we are to progress ever, it’s important for things like that to come to light,” Hatch said.
Hatch, who said he plans to pursue a professorial career when he completes his coursework, said the petition and ongoing conversation about the removal of monuments tied to checkered pasts should be an opportunity for people of all races to start a dialogue.
“This really just calls for a time of introspection and conversation,” Hatch said. “Don’t just be so quick to just say, ‘No, let’s keep the statue.’ In the same way for black people, don’t just be so quick to say, ‘Let’s get rid of the statue.'”
Hatch said he’s willing to listen to those who express anger at the calls for removal, but he pointed to historical ramification as the reason why it’s difficult for him to see it their way.
“The decisions that they made in the past do have lasting effects,” Hatch said. “Historically, things compound, and it translates a little bit into the demographic makeup of not only Arkansas, but specifically Northwest Arkansas, Fayetteville and even the UofA.”
“I think the point is for us to have a conversation.” 🗣— Andrew Epperson (@eppersports) July 3, 2020
Braziel Hatch is a @uawaltoncollege PhD student. He says J. William Fulbright hurt black people’s education access but recognizes he did good things, too.
Catch my story on @KNWAFOX24 tomorrow at 9/10! #NWANews pic.twitter.com/ksTnEavAFD
Jeff Cumpston graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1991 with summa cum laude distinction. He was a history major who completed a two-year honors program that required a written thesis. Cumpston chose to write about Fulbright.
The UofA’s history department features a Fulbright Award for Academic Achievement given out to seniors, and Cumpston earned that award in 1990. Fulbright’s attachment to nearly every element of Cumpston’s educational career plus his mother’s deep knowledge of relations in the Middle East caused him to take an interest in the senator, he said.
“Like many politicians you see today, his views changed over time, and he did what was expedient in those times in Arkansas,” Cumpston said. “I don’t think he was a racist, but I think he did like a lot of people at that time. I think a lot of people looked past those things because that was how they managed their political life.”
Cumpston said he’s been comparing the early Fulbright controversy to others happening nationwide. Princeton University removed President Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school, which Cumpston referenced as a similar occurrence.
“It’s possible to recognize the contributions that these individuals made to international relations or whatever their strong point was. For Fulbright, it was certainly in foreign relations and opposition to the Vietnam War and those kinds of things,” Cumpston said. “Our entire history is affected by this. You can’t look at the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence and not find things that are problematic.”
Cumpston said removing the statue won’t take away systemic racism in Arkansas, which he attributed to the evolution of white supremacy that’s dominated the United States for hundreds of years. So, he said if he had to make the decision, he’d put together a committee that includes students, faculty and people unrelated to the university. He said he’ll be happy with whatever the UofA decides to do because he doesn’t, “have a dog in this fight.”
“I wouldn’t render a decision based on my own personal views,” Cumpston said. “I have a lot of respect for William Fulbright. My view is colored by him as a man, but I was also raised to be extremely anti-racist and to be extremely hyper-aware of racism in the culture, in politics, in the government.”
Cumpston’s not alone in praising Fulbright for his anti-Vietnam War stance. In Clinton’s 2006 biography My Life, the former president wrote about Fulbright’s pragmatic approach to foreign policy. Clinton worked as a clerk for Fulbright before starting his own successful political career.
“He was suspicious of any foreign policy rooted in missionary zeal, which he felt would cause us to drift into commitments ‘which though generous and benevolent in content, are so far reaching as to exceed even America’s great capacities,'” Clinton wrote. “He also thought that when we brought our power to bear in the service of an abstract concept, like anti-communism, without understanding local history, culture, and politics, we could do more harm than good.”
Woods called Fulbright a ‘paradox,” citing those political victories foreign affairs and education concerning issues other than civil rights. Clinton further reiterated that notion in his autobiography, acknowledging his mentor’s shortcomings on race relations while also giving him credit for coming around before his time in office concluded.
“He signed the Southern Manifesto after he watered it down a little and didn’t vote for a civil rights bill until 1970 during the Nixon administration, when he also took a leading role in defeating President Nixon’s anti-civil rights nominee to the Supreme Court, G. Harrold Carswell,” Clinton wrote.
Fulbright’s worldwide name recognition stems from the Fulbright Program, which started after the then-young senator crafted a bill that sold surplus U.S. government war property to fund an international exchange program. Nearly 75 years later, the program has given out nearly 400,000 grants, said DeDe Long, the Fulbright Association’s Board of Directors Chair.
“It has created an astounding network of people trying to engage with each other,” Long said.
The program grants students scholarships to study abroad and brings in others from across the world to learn American ideals. By intentionally seeking out students who might not consider themselves worthy of a prestigious scholarship, the program ultimately builds confidence alongside human connection, Long said.
The name “Fulbright” isn’t seen for its segregationist baggage throughout the world, Long said, simply because too many opportunities for people of all ethnicities, races and places of origin stemmed from the work he did.
“Around the world, Fulbright is a noun,” Long said. “It’s a noun.”
Long said the Fulbright Association has not discussed changing the name, but the argument will ultimately come down to intellectualism versus emotion. Because the program itself is separate from the imperfect man, there hasn’t been any serious consideration to change it. Long hopes the name survives this movement, which she said consists of, “people who are hurting and have every right to be.”
“I’m fairly unapologetic about what that word means to me, but I want to be so, so respectful of the fact that may not be the case with others,” Long said. “I’ll be prepared to live with the decisions that are made by the people in place right now that are going to have those tough decisions to make.”
The University of Arkansas’ Fulbright College also bears its name from the late senator and UA president, and the Black Student Caucus’ Instagram post seemed to also call for the removal of his name from that venture. The #RemoveFulbrightUARK hashtag was included in the post.
In a statement, Lane Schmidt, the Fulbright College’s Executive Assistant to the Dean, responded to the petition and calls for change:
“We have long had a desire to more fully contextualize J. William Fulbright’s past and to have more conversations and recognize that his legacy is controversial and contradicts many of his efforts to advance cultural understanding, The university acknowledges and rejects some of his political actions – including joining the majority of southern Democrats in signing the Southern Manifesto and opposing the landmark 1954 ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and voting against the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”
Schmidt went on to give Fulbright credit for many of the things others have noted as being positive.
“He did support the creation of the United Nations and his efforts to increase mutual understanding between people and nations resulted in the creation of the Fulbright Program – the world’s largest international educational exchange program with more than 370,000 alumni, and thousands of students and scholars from 160 countries participating annually. President Bill Clinton in 1993 also honored him with the nation’s highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom. Additionally, the college has adopted as its mission the following statement, learning from Fulbright’s conflicting and complex legacy and vowing to do better: The Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences enriches lives by promoting discovery, diversity, and inclusion, facilitating transformational experiences, and fostering peace through education.
Schmidt said conversations about a possible renaming of the college have ramped up in response to the Black Student Caucus’ petition.
Regarding the statue and college name specifically, we are listening to Black student leaders on campus, and are creating a series of feedback meetings so we can gather feedback on this topic from all of our various constituents – including students, faculty, staff, alumni and the general community. We are also currently gathering feedback using our online form and we invite any who would like to provide feedback to do so there. Ultimately, we will make a recommendation to Chancellor Steinmetz as to how to move forward.
The Black Student Caucus’ call to remove Fulbright’s statue is attracting supporters and detractors from across the state, even in the legislature. State Sen. Greg Leding (D), a UA alum, said he’s in favor of removing the statue in favor of something or someone everyone can be proud of.
“I did not learn my history by going around and reading statues.”@GregLeding (D) says #arpx should play a role in helping institutions review the legacies of people like J. William Fulbright. More from the state senator & others tonight at 9/10! #NWANews pic.twitter.com/VwjOpUulLW— Andrew Epperson (@eppersports) July 3, 2020
The state legislature should work on helping institutions vet people’s legacies when some aspects of their past are difficult to determine, Leding said.
“I do think the Arkansas legislature plays a role here in helping institutions of higher education and other institutions thoroughly review their legacies, people who have their names on buildings or have statues or programs named after them,” Leding said. “People with legacies like Senator Fulbright’s need to be removed. They need to be addressed.”
In the national debate over monument removal, many have said they fear the country could be erasing its history or that future generations will miss out on learning about the negative parts of America’s past when statues are removed. Leding said he doesn’t agree with that sentiment.
“No, I did not learn my history by going around and reading statues,” Leding said. “Statues that are offensive need to come down.”
In a statement, Mark Rushing, Assistant Vice Chancellor for University Relations, said administrators are having discussions about removing the statue and will come to a well-considered conclusion.
We are aware of the petition. We are having these very conversations on campus currently, not only with our student leaders, but also with our faculty and staff. We are expanding the campus dialogue in the coming days with the goal of establishing a plan to address the legacies as well as the tragedies of Arkansas history on our campus.
Hatch said he hopes dialogue plays a part in whatever the UofA decides to do, and he understands the choice will be a difficult one, and many will be unhappy regardless of the outcome.
“When I see other black students having a reaction to it, I kind of start from a place of empathy and from my own family history,” Hatch said. “We do live in America, and it’s our First-Amendment right to stand up for ourselves.”