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Students walk through the quad in front of Middleton Library on LSU's campus in 2014.

The name "Middleton" has probably been most in the news lately because of seemingly endless reports of flooding and other damages to the library at the center of LSU’s campus.

The neglect of basic repairs — and the long unmet need for a new library — are a scandal.

But as with all scandals at public institutions, there is a back story. It is about politics.

The woes of the library, named for Gen. Troy H. Middleton, president of LSU in the 1950s and early 1960s, have been well-documented. Further, the giant building at the middle of the campus quadrangle has been bemoaned by generations of planners because it broke up the classical architecture of the quad.

What is left out is the story of how the library was built.

Middleton’s name was recently in the news because of a 1961 letter he wrote as LSU's president to a University of Texas colleague. It concerned the university’s opposition to black students enrolling — a few then were accepted, “although we did not like it” — and particularly its refusal to allow African-American students to be athletes.

That certainly reflected the white-resistance politics of Louisiana and LSU at the time, just a couple of years before the Civil Rights Act and then the Voting Rights Act transformed the South. The governor at the time was an avowed segregationist. LSU’s board — political, then as now — reflected the almost complete shutting out of the black community from leadership of the state.

The offensive letter explained: "Our Negro students have made no attempt to attend social functions, participate in athletic contests, go in the swimming pool, etc. If they did, we would, for example, discontinue the operation of the swimming pool."

Middleton’s letter concludes this way: “Since we have not had a Negro request that he be permitted to participate in athletics, we, of course, have not had to make a decision. If one should apply between now and February 1, 1962, (date for my retirement), I think I could find a good excuse why he would not participate. To be specific — L.S.U. does not favor whites and Negroes participating together on athletic teams.”

The UT letter is a blot on the reputation of a genuine war hero.

Middleton was a decorated veteran of World War I. He returned to active military service as a general in World War II after working at LSU in the interwar years.

Middleton is perhaps best known beyond Louisiana as the general who ordered the defense of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge. That heroic episode, in large part because of the courage of the 101st Airborne Division, helped break the Germans’ desperate 1944 counteroffensive.

The head of the U.S. Army, George C. Marshall — a man not given to compliments — was said to have called Middleton the best corps commander in the service.

But LSU campus lore has it that the toughest battle that Middleton ever fought was not against the Germans. It was with the Louisiana Legislature as he struggled to persuade lawmakers to fund a new library for the growing university. Middleton's stature — and intense lobbying — drove legislators to fund a library.

Then as now, it was a large expense.

Then as now, academics were a hard sell at the State Capitol.

In retirement, Middleton helped to atone for attitudes such as those described in the UT letter. And that was also a political story.

With the shift in Southern politics because of voting rights, “new South” politicians like Gov. John J. McKeithen saw the future coming. Because of Middleton’s prestige, McKeithen appointed him to head a racial reconciliation commission.

Journalist Asher Price of the Austin American-Statesman, who recently discovered Middleton’s letter, observed correctly in an oped in this newspaper that memory does indeed pull a soft veil over these events. Louisiana perhaps did not have a Selma or Birmingham on its record, but much violence and intimidation occurred during the civil rights era.

McKeithen’s role navigating those years was a source of pride to the old governor in retirement, cheering on his beloved and increasingly integrated LSU Tigers. But the challenges of civil rights progress in that era are easy to forget. As a practical politician, McKeithen's adept use of Middleton's eminence showed a defter hand than many of the governor's contemporaries in the South of the time.

As ugly as the UT letter is, it is a service to the institution’s memory that it be revealed from the Texas archives. Still, the role of Middleton in service to the country should mitigate his 1960s offenses.

If — and it’s a big if — the leadership of Louisiana does fund a replacement of the aging LSU library, it would be a tragedy if the UT letter led the campus to change the building’s name. General Middleton’s battle for academics would not be properly honored.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.


Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.