Racism continues to roil through the sinews of American society from conservative political candidates and TV news personalities openly calling for the repeal of federal Civil Rights laws to educators polluting public school classrooms with blatant, race-based initiatives to limit instructional information.
For some in Texas, legal scholar Thomas D. Russell is a sinner if not a full-blown heretic.
Why do some Texans find this former University of Texas (UT) law professor now teaching law at the University of Denver so offensive?
Russell thinks that having a UT dorm bearing the name of a Klu Klux Klan member is a festering wrong righted by removing the name of that man who often bragged about terrorizing blacks.
UT’s Simkins Residence Hall is named after William Stewart Simkins, a UT School of Law professor for 30 years until his death in 1929 who co-founded the KKK in Florida following his service in the Civil War as a Confederate Army colonel.
Earlier this year, Russell published a scholarly article examining the history of both Simkins and UT’s resistance to desegregation.
Russell’s article detailed how UT officials named the dorm after Simkins in 1954, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal school desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Ed.
There’s a curious context to critics bashing Russell who accuse him of seeking to erase or rewrite history by removing Simkins’ name from the dorm – the last all male dorm on UT’s campus.
The Texas Board of Education recently approved drastic revisions of public school curriculums – i.e.: massive rewriting of history.
Injecting controversial emphasis on presenting America as a Christian and conservative nation the revisions now require school students to study the ideas of Confederate States’ President Jefferson Davis alongside those of Abraham Lincoln and examine what the Board call’s misconceptions about church-state separation in the US Constitution.
Majority members of the elected, Republican Party dominated Texas Board are committed to countering what they contend is liberal bias infecting education, like presenting facts in classrooms about minorities having made productive contributions to the “American Exceptionalism” Board members extol.
The Board that wants students to learn about 1980s conservative moment icon Phyllis Schlafly all but bars mention of the first Hispanic to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor.
Learning about Sotomayor’s historic 2009 elevation could inspire the Latino students who comprise 48% of the public school pupils in Texas.
“Rewriting history in the name of national pride isn’t patriotic, it’s ignorant,” noted the branch of the civil rights NAACP, reacting to the conservative dogma driving the curriculum revisions.
The Texas Board of Education is not the only official education body gripped by neo-Neanderthalism when it comes to race and racism in America – although it’s arguably the most powerful body since its massive text book purchases set text agendas across America.
Officials in Arizona recently approved legislation eliminating ethnic studies programs in public schools, a measure that specifically targets African-American studies, Native-American studies and especially Chicano studies in a state where nearly half of the students are Latino.
The claims of Arizona State Superintendent of Schools Tom Horne that ethnic studies promote hate and anti-Americanism are as ridiculous as Texas Ed Board member Don McLeroy contending the civil rights moment led to “unrealistic expectations for equal outcomes.”
The civil rights struggles of persons of color in America seek equitable access to opportunity pledged in the U.S. Constitution, not special preferences as conservatives falsely contend.
The Texas Board’s blatant rewriting of history will still include obscuring two pivotal U.S. Supreme Court rulings involving inequities in Texas that helped expand educational opportunity nationwide.
The high court’s June 1950 ruling barring Texas from denying Blacks admission to its prestigious UT Law School was a key decision on the legal road to that court’s 1954 outlawing racial segregation in public schools that hammered ‘Jim Crow’ apartheid across America.
The Supreme Court expanded the principles of its 1954 decision in a 1975 ruling striking down a Texas statue denying educational funding to children of undocumented immigrants.
Defending opposition to Prof Russell’s effort to right a racist wrong on the rationale of protecting heritage not projecting hate once again hides the ominous reality that on matters of race most Americans prefer the comforting mental massage of myths.
One myth is that racist violence, like KKK terrorism, was the antics of a few extremist individuals.
That myth clashes with reality of incidents like the May 1916 lynching on the City Hall lawn in Waco, TX attended by 15,000 spectators, some of whom cut off body parts of the black victim for souvenirs.
Simkins, during a 1914 address at a UT campus Thanksgiving Day observance referenced in Prof Russell’s article, bragged about his nighttime rides with hooded KKK members striking “terror” in blacks terming it “wonderful” in its immediate impact of solidifying white supremacy.
One critic of Thomas Russell claimed it’s improper to judge the past by present standards, contending Simkins’ KKK service and his open advocacy of racism in UT classrooms were acceptable in America during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
But that critic’s attitude typically overlooks the question perpetually ignored in America: acceptable to whom?
Blacks in Texas never happily accepted the racism practiced by the ilk of Simkins and those former UT officials who as late as 1961 tried to fire a law school professor for helping students sue to integrate a dorm.
During the 1883 State Convention of Colored Men of Texas, its Committee on Grievances issued a report denouncing the “great prejudice against [blacks] as a race” highlighting discrimination in public schools, prisons, public accommodations and courtrooms particularly barring blacks from juries – a legal violation brushed aside by many lawyers, judges and law professors.
UT officials are now considering Prof Russell’s request.
However, UT’s Vice-President of Diversity, Gregory Vincent, an Afro-American and law professor, has stated its still “important” to acknowledge the university’s history noting it’s possibly unfair to reverse a recognition bestowed by faculty and student.
America’s refusal to meaningfully confront and quell the institutional racism raging below the proverbial societal ‘radar screen’ remains a serious problem.
This problem of refusal persists because there are too few people like Prof Thomas Russell who are willing to stand against abhorrent race based practices – past and present.