University of Alabama students march for integration in university’s Greek system

New York Times News ServiceSeptember 19, 2013 

University Of Alabama Sororities

University of Alabama students gather on the steps of the Rose Administration Building in protest of the university's segregated sorority system in Tuscaloosa, Ala., earlier this week. About 400 students and faculty marched across the campus to oppose racial segregation among its Greek-letter social organizations.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

— For this rendition of the “stand in the schoolhouse door,” there were no National Guard troops or presidential edicts.

But Wednesday, several hundred University of Alabama students and faculty members invoked Gov. George Wallace’s 1963 attempt to block the enrollment of black students here as they demanded an end to segregation in the university’s fraternities and sororities. Together, the mostly white group marched within sight of the President’s Mansion, one of the only structures on the campus dating back before the Civil War.

Tracey Gholston, a black woman who is pursuing a doctorate in American literature at Alabama, said Wallace’s legacy continued to permeate the university, which has nearly 35,000 students, about 12 percent of them black, and 45 percent from out of state.

“It shows a thread. It’s not just something that was resolved 50 years ago,” said Gholston, who also earned a master’s degree from the university. “You can’t say, ‘We’re integrated. We’re fine.’ We’re not fine.”

The demonstration came one week after the campus newspaper, The Crimson White, published the account of a member of the university’s Alpha Gamma Delta chapter.

The student, Melanie Gotz, said the sorority had bowed to alumnae influence and considered race when it evaluated potential new members earlier this year. Other sorority members shared similar stories.

Racial biases in Alabama’s Greek system, which has a membership of nearly one-quarter of the university’s undergraduate enrollment, have been an open secret here for decades. It is not an issue unique to Alabama, and it is complicated by an era in which blacks and whites on many campuses often gravitate to fraternities and sororities segregated in practice by race, although many national Greek organizations say they have banned discrimination.

Still, many feel systemic discrimination has been tolerated at Alabama, and Gotz’s public revelations led to widespread demands for reform.

University officials had repeatedly asserted that they were powerless to force the integration of private groups.

But on Sunday night, the university’s president, Judy L. Bonner, summoned advisers of traditionally white sororities and told them she was ordering an extended admissions process. And in a videotaped statement released Tuesday, she acknowledged that the university’s “Greek system remains segregated,” which students and professors described as a historic admission.

But the demonstration, which Bonner greeted when it arrived at the Rose Administration Building, focused on a sweeping demand for the president and her lieutenants: don’t stop restructuring the campus.

“We are holding the administration accountable and hoping that they hold us accountable, as well, to improve it in a sustained way and not just in a Band-Aid approach,” said Khortlan Patterson, a sophomore. “This was a great success today, but it’s just one step in the process.”

Patterson, who has considered joining one of the campus’ predominantly black sororities, has plenty of allies. Protesters at the 7:15 a.m. rally included dozens of blue-shirted members of the Mallet Assembly, a residential program founded in 1961 with a history of urging social change at Alabama. (The only black president of Alabama’s student government, elected in 1976, was a member of the organization.)

Since Bonner’s order, those sororities have opened hurried efforts to bring black women into their ranks by extending bids to an unknown number of minority students. It remains unclear whether any of those women will accept the offers.

The university’s fraternity system, founded in 1847, also remains largely segregated, and people here said they would like to see Alabama broaden its diversity initiative to include those organizations, one of which drew attention in 2009 for staging a parade with its members dressed in Confederate uniforms.

Most Greek organizations have barred their members from speaking to reporters, but Sam Creden, a demonstrator who is also a member of Delta Sigma Phi, said there was some unease about the ferment.

“A lot of my fraternity brothers are actually worried that this will be supporting sort of forced integration,” said Creden, a junior from Chicago.

Those who marched, he said, are hoping for a deeper, systematic change.

“We don’t want this to be the facade of integration,” Creden said. “We want people to truly accept people of all backgrounds and races.”

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