Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Mathews discusses lessons at UA

POINT CLEAR — Wisdom and experience only add weight and class to former UA president David Mathews’ deep Southern drawl.

What was once relevant in the world of peaceful deliberation, his attitude seems to say, is and will always be relevant — especially to the president who guided the University through tough racial integration policies in the 1970s.

“If you have any romantic feelings about mobs, seeing one will cure you,” Mathews said, keenly attuned to the tensions that plagued Alabama in the 1950s and ’60s — racial and otherwise — as a firsthand observer. “They take perfectly sweet people and turn them into beasts.”

“I sat next to these people in class,” he said in an interview over a semi-formal lunch, further adding emphasis to his description of the race riots he found so at once mesmerizing and terrifying as a student. The tensions he witnessed in the ’50s would change, but not subside, as he rose to become UA’s highest campus administrator.

Mathews succeeded Frank Rose as UA president in 1969, after an intermittent climb up the University administrative ladder throughout the 1960s.

“I came back to teach,” Mathews said of his second return to serve in the administration of his alma mater. “First as a history teacher, then in the honors program.” It was during his first return, though, as head of men’s housing, that he witnessed one of Alabama’s most infamous political maneuvers.

From George Wallace to integration

Mathews worked on his soup appetizer while he told the story, adding details between bites so as to not speak with his mouth full. He spoke slowly, with the tone and expressions of a story-telling history teacher lecturing to a class.

“I was at Columbia graduate school, but Dean Blackburn asked me to come back the summer of the schoolhouse stand in the door, so I did,” he said, referring to George Wallace’s pro-segregation demonstration at Foster Auditorium. “I was in Tuscaloosa, working in the dean of men’s office, working with residence halls.

“That was more a bit of political theater than anything,” Mathews said. “The governor had made a promise that he would block any integration of any school, really talking about the secondary schools, and he thought it felt it was to his political advantage to make this symbolic stand. But actually, the students — Vivian and Jimmy — were already enrolled and in the dorms. That was more just for the cameras.”

“That was the desegregation of Alabama,” he said, moving to a more explanatory and somewhat more candid tone. “That’s a legal definition. The larger challenge was the integration of the institution. It’s one thing to desegregate it. It’s quite another to integrate it. Up until that point, it had been the University for Part of Alabama. Now it had an opportunity to be the University for the Whole of Alabama.”

“Once all of that energy that went into maintaining segregation was available … you could make the case that there was another university created in the late ’60s and ’70s,” he said. Mathews’s spoon clinked the now-empty soup bowl as waitresses hovered, ready to bring in the entrees.

Overcoming campus divisions

Mathews opened up about his own contributions to the integration of the University during the main course, highlighting what had worked for him and what can work today to heal what some students perceive as insurmountable campus divisions.

“The opposition to desegregation was intense in the ’50s,” he clarified, still maintaining a strict balance between eating and storytelling that allowed him to never be impolite. The big issue he faced, he said, was “much more subtle. It wasn’t, ‘I don’t want to sit next to you because you’re black.’ It was more ‘what’s the basis for integration? Are we all gonna be the same?’”

“Well, that sounded … good at first,” he said. “We’d been separate, so now let’s be the same. But the black kids came, and there wasn’t anybody like them in the class, there weren’t any pictures of anybody like them on the wall, and they felt out of place. We learned that they had to have places for their own.”

“They wanted to build a center, they wanted get fraternal organizations, they wanted to sing spirituals, not just Bach … but at the same time they wanted to be part of the campus environment. By the ’70s, they were becoming student body vice presidents and homecoming queens,” he explained, now taking fewer bites to lend more time to his story. “Even the governor that blocked their admission came to campus to crown the homecoming queen who was black.”

“Integration was challenging,” he said, “because it was not homogenization.”

Mathews told the story, but never pointed to his own accomplishments. For a man who deliberated enumerable sit-ins and taught SGA presidents to do the same with impeccable wisdom, Mathews created an inviting aura of humility. “Ask him about the sit-in he resolved with most of the black population in the administration building,” UA senior Kendra Key said. “He can tell an amazing story about that.”

When asked, Mathews didn’t dodge the question, but downplayed his own deliberative skills. “It certainly wasn’t the whole black population,” he said with a smile. “They didn’t all think alike.”

Current divisions

When asked about current campus divisions, specifically what he thought could ease the independent-greek divide at the University and what an independent candidate could do to win the SGA presidency over a concerted greek-backed voting effort, Mathews answered with an anecdote. For this lesson, he set his silverware down completely.

“Mobile had … it seemed, in 1985, when we started observing what they were doing, to have insurmountable differences,” Mathews began. “Black, white. Rich, poor. New industry, old industry. You couldn’t have gotten them all in the room in 1985 … or you wouldn’t have wanted to be in the room if you got them all together.”

“But there they were,” he continued. “They did not agree with each other … they did not like one another. Certainly they were not alike one another. But they came to realize that they all needed one another. What used to be the most racially divided, least prosperous, and one of the lesser economic engines in the state … is now a national model for cooperation.”

“The question about campus divisions applies here. How did they get to that point? They recognized that they needed one another to get some larger goals accomplished. It was not about, ‘Can my group be more powerful than your group?’ It was, ‘What can we accomplish together?’

“Groups come together over goals larger than them, something more important,” he said, seemingly subtly preaching to all groups on the University’s campus. “In the literature, that’s what’s called a superordinate goal.”

As he ended his answer and picked up his silverware to finish his meal, Mathews added, “I doubt the politics in Mobile are different than anywhere else, when you have questions of divisions.”

“That’s a good model,” he said, with the nod of a wise mentor, the expression of a teacher, administrator, and professor of history who knows the past can teach lessons and prepare for the future.

More to Discover