Majority of speakers at public forum support removing Jefferson Davis statue

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Gregory Vincent, vice president for the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and chair of a 12-person committee evaluating the presence of Confederate statues on campus, speaks at a public forum held June 7.

Photo Credit: Tess Cagle | Daily Texan Staff

At a public forum Tuesday, students, alumni, staff and Austinites weighed in on a discussion surrounding the statues on the Main Mall, particularly the statue of Jefferson Davis, and most speakers said the statue must be removed.

“The entire six pack is overflowing with artistic, social and political intent that cannot at any moment pass itself off,” a student at the forum said. “They symbolize the history of confederate history and intent of centuries of racial injustice.”

The statue has been the target of controversy since it was erected in the 1930s. A previous task force in 2003 recommended the removal of the statue, but no action followed.

Student Government President Xavier Rotnofsky and Vice President Rohit Mandalapu made the removal of the statue a part of their platform in their campaign for office. Rotnofsky and Mandalapu filed a resolution to remove the statue to student government, which Student Government approved in March

Following three incidents of vandalism to statues on the Main Mall, President Gregory Fenves appointed Gregory Vincent, vice president for the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and chair of a 12-person committee, to evaluate the statues.

The forum is one of two where Vincent and committee members will seek comments and suggestions from the University and Austin community.

The committee has already received more than 2,300 comments online and received more than 30 phone calls regarding the statue, according to Vincent.

While most speakers advocated removing the statue, a handful of speakers disagreed.

Terry Ayers, public relations officer for the Descendents of Confederate Veterans, said that confederate leaders should be honored for their service and discouraged equating confederates and racists.

“I’m here to tell you my great grandfather … did not own slaves,” Ayers said. “He was just a poor dirt farmer that was called to defend his country by his government just as I was during the Vietnam War.”

Public affairs professor Edwin Dorn said a society, when memorializing an individual in a statue, must believe that the individual’s virtues must outweigh his or her faults, and that is not the case with Davis.

“He was a slaveowner, a traitor, a failure at the very thing for which he is best known — president  of the confederate state,” Dorn said. “There is nothing honorable in any of this. He should have been hanged for treason. … Jefferson Davis deserves a place in history but not a place of honor.”

Tess Cagle | Daily Texan Staff

Geography lecturer Rich Heyman, who has studied these statues with students as part of his cultural geography course, said the statues must be interpreted in the context of their creation rather than the context of the Civil War.

“People at that time period cynically used the passion, the courage, the thinking about these folks and cynically used people like Albert Sydney Johnson, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and John Reagan to promote white supremacy at the turn of the century,” Heyman said.

Rotnofsky, a member of the committee to evaluate the statues, attended the forum and was happy with the number of speakers and audience members.

“It was a good turnout, and a lot of lively discussion,” Rotnofsky said. “I think it’s going to be really conducive to the task force.”

There will be another public forum July 15, and the committee is accepting online comments and phone calls until then. The committee will make its recommendations to President Fenves August 1.

“We’ve had committees in the past, and there are generations of students that speak up [about the statue],” Rotnofsky said. “I’m hoping that this is the last one.”

Correction: This article originally containted a misattributed quote. The story has since been updated.