Sen. J. William Fulbright might be Arkansas’ second most important historical political figure after President Bill Clinton, but his statue will be moved because of his record on civil rights.
Fulbright served in the Senate from 1944 to 1974. He was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman from 1959 to 1974 and was a vocal Vietnam War opponent. He is best known for creating the prestigious Fulbright international student exchange program. Before embarking on his political career, he briefly served as the University of Arkansas’ president.
His Senate achievements are why he’s the namesake of the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, the University of Arkansas’ largest college with about 8,000 students. His statue stands near the Old Main building’s west entrance – for now.
The reason that situation is temporary is Fulbright also voted with other Southern members of Congress to oppose civil rights laws, and he signed the Southern Manifesto opposing school integration.
He’s been dead for 26 years, but he’s been in the news lately because of African American students’ understandable desire to walk through Old Main’s doors without seeing a big statue of someone whose actions supported segregation. A committee of faculty, staff, students and alumni recommended overwhelmingly to rename the college and almost unanimously to move the statue.
The vote put UA Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz in a difficult position. He wants to be sensitive to those concerns but also doesn’t want to lose the college’s association with Fulbright’s achievements or offend the college’s supporters who oppose Fulbright’s removal. He announced last week that the name will remain but the statue will move. Because of a new state law, the university must seek permission from the History Commission to move the statue.
Fulbright was an influential senator, a force for international goodwill, a product of his time, a politician doing what was necessary to be re-elected, and an elected official who failed to stand up for equality and justice. The university is now trying to convey all of that in a way a statue by itself cannot.
A lot of statues are being moved and torn down lately, and some of it is warranted – in particular, some of those erected many decades ago to blindly glorify the Confederacy as a lost and noble cause. Statues rarely teach much or offer context, nor are they often meant to.
But just as statues lack context, so too can efforts to remove them. Like Fulbright, everyone is a product of their time. Abraham Lincoln’s attitudes on race, particularly in his younger years, would be quite offensive today. But his opposition to slavery led to emancipation.
What are we doing today that would cause our descendants to justifiably want to tear down the statues we erect?
No doubt there are many things. Here’s one example. Since 2001, the national debt has risen from $5.8 trillion, which was far too high, to $28 trillion, which is a path to ruin. That’s $85,000 for every American.
This recklessness will have consequences for future generations. The debt will drain their economy and perhaps even collapse it. If that happens, how will they feel about the lawmakers of the past 20 years – even the greatest of them?
On most issues of concern, at least some elected officials are taking bold stances and looking to the future.
But on this issue, almost none have aggressively supported the spending cuts and tax increases that would balance the budget. A grand bargain has been struck: Spend but don’t tax, argue but don’t act, and leave the consequences to future generations. Politicians only seem to care about this issue after they leave office.
Arkansas’ congressional representatives over that 20-year time period have done some good work, but they’ve also been part of the grand bargain. If a statue of one of them is erected, and the economic collapse occurs because of the debt they helped accelerate, how will future generations view it?
One final thought: We all should be careful about wanting to be remembered for our own memory’s sake. Our goal should be self-sacrificial service, not personal glory.
Glory is fleeting. Times change, and the statues we erect today can be torn down tomorrow.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @steve brawner.