Senator J. William Fulbright Was a Complicated Contradiction in Ideals

Senator J. William Fulbright Was a Complicated Contradiction in Ideals

FAYETTEVILLE- Slavery is America’s original sin, and ever since 1776, race has consequentially been the most divisive issue in the nation. As one might expect, even the greatest of American heroes have found themselves on the wrong side of history when it comes to issues of race.

The late Senator J. William Fulbright is no exception. His legacy is one just as complicated as those belonging to the slave-owning founding fathers. He was every bit as paradoxical as Thomas Jefferson, an individual who coined the phrase “all men are created equal” while also having a slave as his mistress.

This past weekend, as a Fulbright alumnus, I attended the Fulbright Program’s conference “Building Bridges Through Exchange” at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. During the event, I led a world cafe (audio here) on the current state of journalism.

fulbright university of arkansas

All of us “Fulbrighters” know what this man’s primary legacy is, as the Huffington Post put it:

probably known to most people as the founder of the Fulbright Program, which is the State Department’s leading international exchange program, sending our best students, scholars and professionals in almost every field to study, teach and engage with people around the world in return for the world’s best students, scholars and professionals spending time studying, teaching and living in the United States.

Fulbright, whose statue is behind Old Main, the most iconic building at Univ. of A, was the youngest university president in history, before later becoming a U.S. Senator.  He came up with the idea of his immortal exchange program in the wake of disillusionment with the United Nations.

As the longest serving Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he was instrumental in helping avoid another world war, and given the political climate of the atomic age, perhaps a cataclysmic event. A rational, and mostly unemotional man, he stood for the ideals of the constitution, and opposed the Vietnam War.

He was a multilateralist abroad who stood as strongly for the concept of world peace as any individual in American history. He was also a major inspiration to President Bill Clinton.

university of arkansas fulbright

At home however, he was a segregationist Dixiecrat who opposed the Civil Rights Act and endorsed the Southern Manifesto. How can one bridge such an ideological gap like this?

I asked Dr. Randall B. Woods, a professor of history at the University of Arkansas who gave a fantastic presentation on Bill Fulbright during the conference.

“In terms of segregation, he was so obsessed with the international that he was ignorant as to what was going on in this country until the Little Rock crisis,” Woods responded.

“I would warn you not to confuse cosmopolitanism with racial tolerance, those are not necessarily two different things at that time.”

“He was ignorant for the most part of the struggle, until he had an epiphany.”

Unfortunately, that epiphany came too late, but in Arkansas Fulbright is still viewed as a heroic figure of mythic proportions today. He was a Rhodes Scholar who studied at Oxford, and also a star half-back on the Razorbacks football team. 

german american relations

President Harry Truman once called him “an overeducated son of a bitch,” and the Fulbright Act was certainly something that sailed over the heads of many inside the beltway.

However, Fulbright, like his home state, can’t escape his troubled history on the issue of race.

Arkansas, like a few other southern states, still has a state flag that is evocative, if not derivate of the Confederate flag. It’s a state that has a lot of catching up to do, and plenty of overcompensation given the dark legacy of Orval Faubus and the Little Rock Crisis of 1957.  

As for J. William Fulbright being an enlightened man who espoused internationalism, inclusion, integration and unity abroad while willfully turning a blind eye to discrimination, prejudice and racism at home, there are conflicting theories as to why he was that way.

arkansas state flag confederacy

Perhaps he put his energy and effort into being a progressive abroad because he knew he couldn’t do it at home?

Maybe he felt he had to make a devil’s bargain with the racists at home in order to achieve his foreign policy aims?

Legendary Kentucky Wildcats basketball coach Adolph Rupp is a figure that makes for a fairly strong analogy to J. William Fulbright. In a southern state, in his case Kentucky, Rupp is basically a demigod who is not largely viewed with the same skepticism as he is in the rest of the country.

Was Rupp racist? Absolutely.

Was he especially racist for an elite white male in the mid-century South? No, and that’s very sad to say. Historically, the military and sports are two areas that often move the country forward on issues of race, so it’s very unfortunate that a leading figure in military policy and an iconic sports figure couldn’t answer when the call for progress was made.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, the author of “No,  I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly appears on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation

Banks, a former writer for NBC and Chicago, also contributes to Chicago NowFollow him on Twitter and Instagram. The content of his cat’s Instagram account is unquestionably superior to his.

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