UT’s Discrimination Pressure Valve

Simkins Hall dormitory photo by Robert Green

If history is written by those who show up, then the question of renaming The University of Texas’ Simkins Hall dormitory—currently named for confederate officer, Florida Ku Klux Klan co-founder and UT law professor William Stewart Simkins—ought to be an easy one. During two recent public forums that UT held on the renaming question, attendees overwhelmingly supported stripping Simkins’ name from the building. The decision, though, isn’t really theirs—their clear consensus was distilled into a recommendation by an advisory committee, which will be delivered by UT President William Powers as a suggestion to the real decision-makers—the UT Board of Regents.

UT’s law and engineering dormitory has borne Simkins’ name since it opened in 1955, christened in a move that was almost certainly calculated as symbolic defiance against university integration efforts, coming five years after Heman Sweatt enrolled, in spite of a lawsuit filed by UT’s then-President Theophilius Painter, as the first black UT law student, and five weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

Since discussion of renaming the dormitory resurfaced in the wake of a paper by former UT law professor Thomas Russell last spring, the university administration’s stance has shifted from instinctively resistant to self-congratulatory open-mindedness (sample dialogue from the website: “President Powers’ decision to have an advisory group study changing the name of Simkins Hall is an indication of how dedicated this university is to creating a welcoming climate of cultural and intellectual diversity.”)

Earlier today, Powers announced that the 21-member advisory group that he convened to study the issue, which was in turn informed by input received during the two public forums, had recommended a name change. The final decision will be made by the UT Board of Regents during their July 15 meeting. Powers, who will deliver the advisory group’s recommendation to the regents, is calling for the dormitory and nearby park to instead bear the name “Creekside.”

In a regular address that Simkins delivered to his law students, he described a number of attacks that he and others made against blacks during their Florida KKK ‘glory days’ in the late 1860s. One such story involves Simkins, brandishing a wooden club, chasing Florida state Senator Robert Meacham through a crowded street. None of the onlookers—black or white—stepped forward to defend Meacham, and authorities never investigated the attack on a sitting state official.

“The unseen power,” Simkins explained, “was behind me.”

Two public forums to inform an advisory committee to make a recommendation to the actual decision-makers might be the university’s version of expedient action, or they might be looking for some bureaucratic intestine where they can send this controversy to wither and die. Even at its very best, though, the dispute is still just a pressure valve, one that takes the pressure that has built up against prolonged, sustained injustice and diverts it into purely symbolic measures. Even if the regents do the right thing, and strip Simkins’ name from the building, it won’t do a bit of good for the thousands of minority and low-income students who face real disadvantages at UT everyday.

And if they don’t, we’ll discover that, eight decades after his death, William Simkins still has the unseen power behind him.

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