Why Texas statue honoring Confederate leader will be mothballed

The Jefferson Davis statue at the University of Texas at Austin is being moved. Since June, there has been a profound shift in the nation’s tolerance for displays of Confederate pride. 

Eric Gay/AP
A statue of Jefferson Davis is seen on the University of Texas campus in Austin, Texas. The university is relocating the statue to an exhibit in the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

The statue of Jefferson Davis, once president of the Confederate States of America, will be removed from the main building at University of Texas at Austin, the university president announced Thursday.

UT president Gregory Fenves announced that the Davis statue will be relocated to an exhibit in the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, but four statues of other Confederate generals will remain on university’s South Mall.

“While every historical figure leaves a mixed legacy, I believe Jefferson Davis is in a separate category,” Fenves wrote in a letter to the UT-Austin community, “and that it is not in the university’s best interest to continue commemorating him. Davis had few ties to Texas; he played a unique role in the history of the American South that is best explained and understood through an educational exhibit.”

The statues commemorating Confederate leaders including, Davis, Gen. Robert E. Lee,  and Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston  were commissioned in 1916 by George Littlefield, a Confederate veteran, regent and the largest benefactor of the university’s first 50 years, according to a report by the university.

“They represent a part of Texas’ heritage; they reflect the times in which they were created, 1916-1933; and they are a representation of the history of the South and the United States. All history is controversial, including the Civil War and its aftermath. Over time, our perspective on historical figures has evolved, and we have made significant progress in overcoming the legacy of that era, as well as our own history as a segregated university,” Fenves said.

In June, Fenves, asked a 12-member task force to provide options on what to do with the Confederate symbols. The team released their findings on Monday in which they recommended moving the Davis statue to elsewhere on campus, or at least adding an explanatory plaque with historical context on why the president of the Confederacy was being honored with a bronze likeness.

"Statues have layers of meaning: aesthetic, historical, aspirational, and educational. History is not innocent; it is the living foundation for the present," the report said. "The university’s approach to changing and replacing monuments on campus should be conservative but not uncritical."

According to the task force, the statues have been controversial for various reasons since their creation and there were several references to them as racist during the 1960s but a sustained objection dates back to the 1990s when racist incidents at the university’s annual Round-Up celebration caused students and activists to vandalize the sculptures.

In June, three Confederate statues at the campus were vandalized with the words 'Black Lives Matter' written in bright red spray paint following the mass shooting at a landmark black church in Charleston, S.C. Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old shooter confessed that he was attempting to start a race war and photos of him quickly emerged of him displaying a variety of flags associated with white supremacy including the Confederate flag. A nationwide movement erupted to rid public buildings of the flag

As The Christian Science Monitor reported in June:

Almost overnight, Americans are deeply questioning the role and permanence of state-sanctioned symbols of a past regime founded on white supremacy in a present multiethnic and pluralistic society.

“There’s some validity to the fact that [flags and monuments] are part of Southern heritage, but then you have 30 percent of the population that are pretty highly offended by the flag” and other Confederate symbols, says Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist at the University of Charleston in South Carolina. “True, you can’t restrict somebody’s free speech, but you can say that as a government or a state we’re not going to put it in a prominent place, given how it’s being used by [hate groups] and the fear that it brings to a large portion of our population.”

Another Jefferson Davis statue – this one in Kentucky Capitol rotunda in downtown Frankfort – also faces eviction. On Wednesday, House Speaker Greg Stumbo said that he would file legislation during the 2016 General Assembly beginning in January that would move the statue. Rep. Stumbo (D) Prestonsburg said it was "inappropriate" to display the statue in the seat of state government, reported the Lexington Herald-Leader.

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