Edmund T. Gordon

Edmund T. Gordon, chair of the African and African diaspora studies department, said he hopes being recognized with a Presidential Citation will further legitimize his goal of expanding the presence and acknowledgement of people of African descent at the University.

Issued earlier this month, the honor recognizes the extraordinary contributions of individuals who personify the University’s commitment to the task of transforming lives, according to the Office of the President. The Presidential Citation is awarded in the place of honorary degrees, which the University does not give out.

“It means, to me, the kind of work I’ve attempted to do over the past 25 years at the University is valued,” Gordon said. “I think the major work that I have done that is being recognized is trying to help institutionalize racial and gender equality in the University.”

Gordon said his work helped create the African diaspora program in the anthropology department, lead a push for the Center for African and African American studies to be named after former professor John Warfield and helped to create the African and African diaspora studies department.

Gordon was one of five to receive the recognition. Others recipients include Charles Matthews, president of the Texas Exes and former vice president and general counsel at ExxonMobil; James Mulva, former president, chairman and CEO of Conoco Phillips; his wife Miriam Mulva, director of the Mulva Family Foundation, which donated approximately $75 million for the new Liberal Arts Building and to support a new engineering building and graduate school of business; and Shannon Ratliff, former member of the UT System Board of Regents and owner of Ratliff Law Firm.

The African and African diaspora studies department is housed under the College of Liberal Arts. Randy Diehl, College of Liberal Arts dean, said Gordon is extremely deserving of the Presidential Citation.

“Over the past several decades, no one has worked more diligently — and more successfully — to recruit and retain a diverse faculty and to build black studies on this campus,” Diehl said.

Cherise Smith, art and art history associate professor and center for African and African American studies director, said Gordon’s advocacy for social justice extends past UT.

“I think of him as a very strong voice of reason and of advocacy for black people on campus — faculty and students,” Smith said. “He has been a very good mentor to students and faculty on campus, and that’s hard to come by.”

Mitchell Faust, African and African diaspora studies graduate student, whom Gordon mentored in the past, said Gordon continues to impact his life. 

“He has given me great advice,” Faust said. “He is a man of a great deal of knowledge. He wants to engage in the betterment of students and faculty, especially of color, and how they are progressing.”

The statue of latino civil-rights activist Cesar Chavez stands in the West Mall as one of the many diverse statues erected to display an awareness of the diverse demographic present on campus.

Photo Credit: Batli Joselevitz | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s note: This story is the fifth in a series exploring race, racism and diversity on the UT campus.

A simple stroll around the 40 Acres tells you a lot about UT’s complicated history with racism on campus.

Permanent fixtures of the University’s ties to race and racism are scattered throughout campus. From the representations of Confederate figures in the South Mall to the more recently unveiled statues of Martin Luther King Jr. and Barbara Jordan, each encompass a part of the complex mosaic that is UT’s racial past and present.

Edmund T. Gordon, chair and associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, gives tours of the UT campus to explain its ties to racism. Gordon said the campus’ structure is evidence of its racial past, seen most obviously in the Tower’s facing south toward the South Mall.

“There is a huge South Mall because we want to respect our southern heritage and the confederacy,” Gordon said.

Gordon said the South Mall’s Confederate statues and the Littlefield Fountain are symbolic of the University’s history of racist values.

“This is about a glorification of the Confederacy and of a particular moment in history when the South and North are brought together under a democratic president and under a notion of white supremacy,” Gordon said.

Gordon said while he is in favor of keeping the current statues, there needs to be an explanation of their significance to the campus.

“There needs to be some way in which the University recognizes that there’s a debate around these things,” he said. “The thing to remember is that the past of the University is built into its structure and the past of the University is a racist past.”

David Gracy, School of Information professor emeritus, said he agreed with Gordon’s view that the controversial statues should not be removed, but sees the statues as symbolic of something other than racism. Gracy’s great-great-uncle, George Littlefield, was a law professor at UT whose personal funding helped keep UT at its current location and who was commemorated with the construction of the Littlefield Fountain.

Gracy said the Confederate statues in the South Mall were placed next to the Littlefield Fountain as a memorial to celebrate the reunification of the North and South to fight in World War I. He said the figures were intended to serve as sources of inspiration, just like the statues commemorating the civil rights movement.

“They were built in part as a memorial to those who gave their lives in service to their country,” Gracy said. “You include subsequent examples of men whose leadership is particularly admirable. The Martin Luther King statue is an excellent example of that.”

Gracy said examining the statues from a historical and sociological standpoint sheds light on how our society views race.

“Having them there allows us to look at history to see what they originally meant, and as time has gone forward to see what succeeding generations have tried to make them mean,” he said.

Journalism professor Gene Burd has been teaching classes exploring race in the media since he came to UT 40 years ago. Burd said the issue of race on campus was obvious when he first arrived.

“UT-Austin was rather late in becoming a part of the modern civil rights movement,” he said. “That affected enrollment here, it affected courses and it hurt UT’s reputation.”

Other notable fixtures around campus include Robert Lee Moore Hall, named for a former professor known for excluding black students from his classes, and the Perry–Castañeda Library, which was named after notable black and Latino professors at UT.

Burd said while many people propose the removal of the Confederate statues, he does not. Rather, he believes statues of figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Barbara Jordan, the first black female elected to the Texas House of Representatives and a former UT adjunct professor, complement them in giving a full view of history.

“If you’re not willing to accept that your past is still a part of you, you’re lost,” he said. “You can’t just erase it. In order to understand the present and what’s going on now, you have to know what all has happened.”

Amber Chenevert, an advertising graduate student and president of the Black Graduate Student Association, said the history behind the issue of racism is still unfolding even today. Chenevert said she is concerned about a lack of balance on campus.

“The UT campus should reflect all the races, ethnicities and genders that encompass it,” she said. “There needs to be a balance of representation that is an actual reflection of campus and the people there.”

Chenevert said all changes that have taken place, such as the erection of statues of Barbara Jordan and Cesar Chavez, are a product of the struggle of many students.

“These changes are the result of the struggle at UT from the beginning,” she said. “As a larger variety of people have been allowed over time to attend UT, they’ve wanted to be represented on campus fairly and fully.”

Chenevert said this struggle is still taking place.

“We’re still fighting to this day for equality and balanced representation,” Chenevert said.

Printed on Tuesday, May 1, 2012 as:UT fixtures show complex history

Delores Lenzy-Jones, Sabrina OBerry, Melvin Coleman, Mailynn Hart and Arnold Garrett perform a prayer at the Capitol during the 19th Annual Community March celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Day, Monday morning. The parade began at the MLK Statue on UT campus, marched to the Capitol and then on to Huston-Tillotson University.

Photo Credit: Rebeca Rodriguez | Daily Texan Staff

Although progress has been made in the 43 years since his death, activists still pursue Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial equality as Austin residents celebrated his life and work Monday at an annual march.

The city of Austin’s 19th Annual MLK Community March on Monday morning saw an estimated 15,000 people travel from the East Mall to the Capitol and finally to historically black Huston-Tillotson University in celebration of the life and works of Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader’s teachings of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience helped bring civil rights to the forefront of the political agenda, ending institutionalized segregation.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into law in 1983 as the third Monday in January, the same year that students in the African-American culture committee at UT created the Annual MLK Community March, said UT march coordinator Brenda Burt.

“It was a student initiative, and our students decided that they wanted to honor King by having a march, and it’s been going on for 29 years,” Burt said. The march began with an opening address by Burt and President William Powers Jr., followed by an address by Edmund T. Gordon, department chair for the African and African Diaspora Studies Department. The marchers then traveled to the Capitol where participating gospel choirs performed, and then to Huston-Tillotson University where the performances of local bands were combined with an oral history of MLK’s push for de-segregation in Austin.

Austin was one of the first cities to embrace Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was not celebrated in all 50 states until 2000. This displays Austin’s highest values, said Austin mayor Lee Leffingwell, who took part in the march.

“The march reflects well on Austin’s values, that we respect what Dr. King did and that we are proud to recognize and honor his accomplishments,” Leffingwell said. “In many if not most social issues, students have led the way, and UT is no exception.”

Monday’s march also displays the values of UT, which continue to demonstrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy to this day, said Powers.

“Dr. King’s achievements resonate among all Americans but we see it quite visibly here on our campus,” Powers said. “We are not at the end of our journey, but we’ve come a long way and I think celebrating Dr. King on campus is particularly important because today is not just a celebration, but a re-dedication to the values of Dr. King.”

This is a particularly important day, given the continuing inequality of wealth in the United States, said Gordon.

“MLK would not be content with a mere celebration on his birthday,” Gordon said. “He believed nothing would be done until people put their bodies and souls into motion, and the uneven distribution of wealth is reaching historic proportions.”

Austin resident Karalin Joyce shared that belief. She said she participated in the march to honor the traditions of Martin Luther King Jr.“We don’t have equality, we just have this pretty picture that everything is better,” Joyce said. “Racism is still there. We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.”