Fifty years ago, the University of Alabama admitted its first black students, but not before putting up an infamous fight. As you might recall from your US history class, Alabama Gov. George Wallace — who had promised "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" — attempted to block the entry of two black students to the school on June 11, 1963, in what was known as the "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door." Thanks to intervention from President Kennedy, the students were eventually allowed in. Now, generations later, the school is back in the spotlight for the apparent segregation of its Greek system.
Earlier this month, student newspaper The Crimson White reported that four sororities had stopped two otherwise-qualified black women from joining. According to the paper, chapter alumnae were behind the discrimination. As this story gains national attention and highlights modern race realities, let's look at how it's unfolded so far.
Aug. 9: Local Newspaper Asks If This Is the Year Sororities Will Accept a Black Member
The community in Tuscaloosa, AL, is acutely aware of the school's legacy of racism. Even before rush started, AL.com pointed out that "while the University of Alabama student body desegregated 50 years ago this summer, the UA Panhellenic Association, the largest women's organization on campus, has yet to follow suit."
Aug. 17: Bid Day
Rush week ended, and out of almost 2,000 women who were accepted to the traditionally white sororities, none were black.
Sept. 11: Student Newspaper Publishes Exposé
In a piece titled "The Final Barrier: 50 years later, segregation still exists," student newspaper The Crimson White came out with an exposé claiming that at least four traditionally white sororities at the school blocked the bids of two black students, one of whom had a 4.3 GPA in high school and came from a well-connected family. While the paper kept many sources anonymous because they were worried for their safety, Alpha Gamma Delta member Melanie Gotz lent her name to the story and said, "People are too scared of what the repercussions are of maybe taking a black girl."
Melanie, along with others, said executive members and alumnae blocked sorority sisters from voting to admit black recruits and some threatened to cut off funding. An anonymous member of Chi Omega was among others to share similar experiences: "I know [the recruit] got perfect scores from the people in chapter the first day, and she got cut after the first day and I know it had to do with our advisor." The paper also noted that large Southern universities, like Auburn and Ole Miss, have had more success integrating their Greek systems.
Keep reading to find out how the university reacted.
Sept. 17: University President Says She Won't Tolerate Racism
As the story began to gain national attention, University President Dr. Judy Bonner released a video message condemning discrimination. The video had a somewhat mixed message — "While we will not tell any group who they must pledge, the University of Alabama will not tolerate discrimination of any kind," she said — but behind the scenes, the school took actions to modify the recruitment process. The new "open bidding" allows sororities to offer bids to candidates who don't rush during the traditional time, allowing sororities to extend bids to black women who were blocked — if they'd accept them.
Sept. 18: Students Demonstrate
On Wednesday, students invoked the school's legacy, this time turning the infamous Stand in the Schoolhouse Door on its head and demanding the integration of the Greek system. Hundreds marched from the university library to the president's office to make their voices heard.
Sept. 19: Student Government Bans "Block Seating" For Football Game
Football is a big deal at Alabama, and this weekend during the team's first home game, controversial block seating will be banned. Typically, the student organization seating means only members of traditionally white fraternities get the best seats in the end zone. While the new policy only stands for the home opener, it's meant to encourage the student body to come together. In a letter to students released Thursday, the student government president said: "As you know, our campus has been the subject of attention for alleged discrimination within the Greek system. I want to address the situation and do my best to foster a sense of inclusiveness and diversity in all areas of campus."
There's still a long way to go at the University of Alabama. But it's at least reassuring that 50 years later, you don't need a direct command from the president of the United States for productive steps to be taken.