At UT, the fight against discrimination devolves into symbolism
If history is written by those who show up, then the question of renaming UT’s 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. Simkins’ name was first applied to the law and engineering dormitory in 1955, in a move that was almost certainly calculated as symbolic defiance against university integration efforts, five years after Heman Sweatt enrolled in the law school in spite of a UT lawsuit, 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 resistant to self-congratulatory open-mindedness (sample dialogue from UT’s 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.”) UT President William Powers dispatched Vice President of Diversity and Community Engagement Gregory Vincent to head up two public forums collecting public input about a name change. The results of the forums—a clear pro-name-change consensus—will be distilled into a recommendation delivered by an advisory study group to the Board of Regents, who will make the ultimate decision. The regents, however, are not bound by the recommendation.
In a regular address that Simkins, who taught at UT from 1899 to 1929, 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 himself, brandishing a wooden club, chasing Florida state Senator Robert Meacham—a black man—through a crowded street. None of the onlookers—black or white—stepped forward to defend Meacham, and authorities never investigated the attack. “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 channels 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 actual, non-symbolic institutional discrimination 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.