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

50 years later: Room for improvement

Today’s University of Alabama looks much different than it did 50 years ago. Jim Oakley, recruiting coordinator and career counselor in the College of Communication and Information Sciences and former professor of journalism, attended the University in the 1950s. He was there when Autherine Lucy became the first black student to enroll in the University.

“We probably had about 12,000 students, between 10 and 12,” Oakley said. “It was a small school, laid back. Everything was slow-going. All white students. We had some foreign students as well, but basically it was an all-white school.”

During Oakley’s time as a student, legal segregation kept most people from even thinking about race.

“I never thought about [race],” Oakley said. “I grew up in an all-white situation. My high school was segregated, and that’s just the way I grew up, the way people of that age grew up.”

It wasn’t until Lucy became the first black student to enroll at the University in 1956 that race became the touchstone of the day.

“It was never discussed until Lucy came,” Oakley said. “Then tension erupted. We had mobs, marches and speeches and cross burnings. The Klan was big involved. … Students would gather. Those who were for integration would speak out here [in front of Reese Phifer]. Maybe the next night, the anti-integration would speak out here. Then maybe the Klan would drop in for a rally, burn a cross at the Chimes.”

During the week Lucy attended the University, protests gradually became more violent through the intervention of the Ku Klux Klan and other groups.

“A guy came up to me, fully clothed in his Klan garments, and called my name,” Oakley said. “He says, ‘Oakley, you better get the hell out of here.’ And he pulled up his gown, and he had a pistol on his side.”

The University of Alabama was hardly the only Southern institution that experienced a violent reaction to integration. At the University of Mississippi, riots erupted in the wake of the enrollment of James Meredith, the first black student to be admitted to Ole Miss. The riots resulted in the deaths of two men and were only quelled after President John F. Kennedy sent federal forces to stop the violence. Meredith, unlike Lucy, was able to stay at Ole Miss and complete his degree.

Donald Cole, assistant to the Chancellor Concerning Minority Affairs at Ole Miss, said the riots left a lasting stain on the university’s reputation.

“It will be something we will have to live with and work with and face for years yet to come,” Cole said. “There are many individuals for which that’s the only thing they remember about the institution and all that they remember. We sort of dug ourselves in a hole from which we have to, over time and over years, dig ourselves out.”

Cole said the memories from that era have made recruiting minority students to Ole Miss a challenge.

“Many of these students are told by their parents, told by their grandparents, that this place may present an unwelcoming environment,” Cole said.

The University of Alabama and other Southern institutions have made great strides toward including minority students since the days of segregation, though some echoes from that era can still be heard.

According to the UA Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, minority students made up 19.5 percent of the total student population in 2012. Black students alone made up 12.6 percent of the total population.

Jimmy Williams, associate dean of Multicultural Affairs in the UA College of Arts and Sciences, said the University enrolls the second most black students of any flagship university in the country and is third for the percentage of total degrees conferred to black students.

In his job with the College of Communications, Oakley sees a lot of high school students who are interested in the University.

“They’re coming from all over the world,” Oakley said, before listing the places the people in a group he was showing around had come from. “I have a visitor coming in this afternoon from Seoul, Korea, looking for a place to go to school, and we have something to offer this person.”

Compared to other nearby universities, however, the University lags in the percentage of its student body, faculty and staff that are minorities. Between Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Auburn University and the University of Mississippi, Alabama has the lowest percentage of both faculty members and total staff who are minorities and is second only to Auburn in the percentage of its total student population.

UAB led the field in all three areas. At UAB, 36.2 percent of the student body were minorities, while minorities comprised 24.6 percent of the faculty and 40.1 percent of total staff.

The University of Mississippi had the second highest percentage of minority students and total staff, with 24.2 and 27.7 percent respectively, but led only Alabama in percentage of minority staff members, with 16.9 percent.

Cole said the population of Mississippi gives Ole Miss fertile ground for recruiting minority students.

“Here in Mississippi, the black population is about 37 percent,” Cole said. “We have a great pool to draw from. The academics of the institution have always been known to be good, even when the social atmosphere of the time is not good. We put a lot of effort into attracting minority students.”

Auburn University came in second for percentage of minority faculty with 19.5 percent, but led only Alabama in percentage of student body and total staff, with 18.5 and 20.8 percent respectively. Overtoun Jenda, associate provost for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at Auburn, said while Auburn still has a ways to go, it has come a long way since he first started working there in 1988.

“Things do take time,” Jenda said. “I think right now, we’ve reached a point where I think we’re okay, but as you know, we still have a low percentage of minority students. Some students still feel like they’re isolated, but the goal of the university is to reach those people so that everybody feels comfortable.”

While Auburn’s small population poses a challenge to bringing in black and minority faculty members, Jenda said the situation has improved.

“We’re not in a big city like Birmingham,” Jenda said. “We’re in a small city, so it gets more difficult to bring in black faculty. But the numbers have more than doubled over the years. It’s looking much better now than it used to be.”

One of the few areas in which each institution still faces issues with segregation is the greek system.

“I think there [the greek system] is where you would see most segregation take place,” Cole said. “The greek system is one for which we have made some progress, but we believe most of our progress is yet to be made.”

Jenda said students often become established in greek organizations and fail to branch out.

“As you know, once they [students] start joining sororities and fraternities, then we start getting in those problems, because fraternities and sororities are segregated for the most part,” Jenda said. “Once that starts, it’s going to be tough to break.”

Jenda said there are some limited instances of integration within Auburn’s greek system.

“You might have some white sororities with black students, but it’s a small percentage,” Jenda said. “To their credit, they’ve started doing some activities together, and those are important. If these groups can continue to work together on common projects, that’s what we want to see.”

Reava Vaughters, president of the Black Student Union at the University, is hopeful change will come from within the greek system itself.

“I believe we’ll be more successful in integrating if it’s done willingly and not forced,” Vaughters said.

Even if there is still progress to be made, most people can’t help but look favorably on the current conditions for minorities at the University and other schools when compared to the past.

Cole attended Ole Miss as an undergraduate in 1968 and compared his relative lack of opportunities as a freshman to “the unlimited opportunities that students have today in all of their various areas.”

“I have seen tremendous changes take place,” Cole said. “I’ve had the opportunity to see integration take place in just all areas of the university. That, somehow, I thought I would never see as a freshman.”

Whether or not minorities make up an equitable portion of the student body, Vaughters said the opportunities minority students have at the University are only limited by their willingness to find them.

“When it comes to minority students, my personal belief is that the UA community does not shut us out,” Vaughters said. “We have many opportunities just as any other student. It’s up to the students individually if they want to take advantage of them.”

If nothing else, today’s University stands in stark contrast to the one Oakley attended, when Klan members burned crosses in response to a single black student.

“[That attitude] finally went away,” Oakley said. “As people matured and grew up, it just went away. Best thing that ever happened to The University of Alabama.”

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