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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Reality and context

by John Brummett | May 4, 2021 at 3:01 a.m.

The easy thing would be to ignore the J. William Fulbright statue and naming issue at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

After all, the UA Board of Trustees will never vote to move the statue or remove the name no matter that a committee has recommended both.

There is donor money at stake and the state's ruling and rabid white conservativism to contend with.

But, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, we write these columns not because they are easy but because they are hard.

It turns out that this issue offends white Arkansas liberals along with the right wing, perhaps even more strongly in this case.

I've read with interest the social media posts on this subject over the last few days by some of the most devoted white Arkansas liberals. These posts reflect seething anger that a great man -- Fulbright -- would be tarred by so-called wokeness and the so-called cancel culture.

It serves to remind that there often is a wide cultural gap between white liberals and Black people, to the point that it's remarkable the Democratic voting coalition has held together all these decades.

Facebook posters of lifelong liberal bona fides are saying that Fulbright deserves a pass for failures on civil rights because he was a politician trying to negotiate the reality of his time and culture to stay in office.

But you could say the same of Orval Faubus, Ross Barnett and George Wallace, Southern governors in the late '50s to early '60s serving their political survival and ambition to lead their states in breaking federal law mandating integration of public education.

Fulbright, in 1964, participated in the filibuster in the U.S. Senate against the Civil Rights Act and voted against the landmark legislation. He hadn't said a word against Faubus seven years before when he used the National Guard to block the entry into Little Rock Central of nine Black children.

The difference between Fulbright and those demagogic governors was that he wasn't like them on anything other than early '60s race positioning. He was infinitely more cerebral, less demagogic, more respected, more courageous, and more a credible source of state pride.

He took on Joe McCarthy. He started a program of international education fellowships. Most famously, he used his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to decry early and with great reason and passion the misbegotten American military action in Vietnam.

So, many white Arkansas liberals say he should be judged in that full context, including his one-time presidency of the very UA campus where his statue stands prominently and his name adorns the College of Arts and Sciences.

But the point of the committee's recommendation is that -- regardless of Fulbright's greatness otherwise -- Black students who started this issue with online petitioning do not deserve to be asked to take courses in a college named for a man who voted against their civil rights. It's that they shouldn't have to walk past a statue honoring that man to get to those classes.

This is not quite like the understandable scoffing about trying to apply the new rules of the Black Lives Matter movement to rename Washington, D.C., or anything called Jefferson. Those men were founders of a mostly great country, or partially great, or one intended to greatness, that had a constitution permitting amendment by which slaves could be freed and equal protection afforded. Their racist sins, both personal and policy, were in the 18th century, not 1964.

Arguing for dispensation owing to the culture of the time is easier when the time was 200 to 250 years ago, not 57.

The point is not that Fulbright shouldn't be given a personal pass on the Civil Rights Act. That's an individual decision. It's that Black students shouldn't be institutionally subjected to Fulbright's modern-era opposition to their civil rights.

The best solution is acknowledging that Fulbright was a great statesman with a great flaw and that the great statesman deserves to be honored, but not at the cost of appearing to excuse the great flaw.

The statue of Fulbright should be displayed prominently elsewhere with an exhibit that extols his many-pointed statesmanship and reveals and deplores his one-pointed flaw.

Fulbright's name should be taken off the arts and sciences college on the principle that few if any human beings should have such things named for them -- because all people are flawed, and politicians especially, owing to the nature of electoral tactics. That's so whether talking about the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, the Dale Bumpers College of Agriculture, Food and Life Sciences or the Janet M. Huckabee Great Hall at the Governor's Mansion.

I readily admit I don't feel strongly about the statue or the name. I'm mainly interested in sensitivity to the historically mistreated.

Alas, a reasoned and dispassionate solution seems currently out of the question considering, as it happens, the reality and context of our time and culture.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.


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