50 years ago, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, making segregation, discrimination and prejudice on racial grounds illegal in the US. The year before, James Hood and Vivian Malone became the first black students to desegregate the University of Alabama, striding past Governor George Wallace who had tried to block their way into the auditorium. Coincidentally, JFK sent the Civil Rights Bill to Congress on the very same day.
50 years on though, almost to the day, skin colour still appears to represent something of a barrier of African American female students hoping to gain membership of one of Alabama's traditional all-white sororities. The irony would be hilarious if so many hadn't suffered, and continue to suffer, in the quest for equal rights.
The current controversy has both marginalised and unified the student body; it has prompted the president to make a series of official (and ambiguously unsatisfying) statements and it’s gained the attention of the nation's media. A few hundred black and white students did come together in a public showing of protest with a march at the weekend. However, in order to avoid punishment for breaking the student Code of Conduct, which states that an organised march must be approved prior to its start date, the march itself was a fractured and calm affair. Equally, president Bonner's presence offset the effectiveness of the gathering, a subtly planned public relations stunt.
At this point, it is worth noting that here in Tuscaloosa we are in the deepest of the ‘Deep South’, where ingrained stereotypes have been passed down the generations since the darkest days of Jim Crow. The harrowing realities of modern-day Alabama are disguised at the university behind a façade of wealth, luxury and architectural magnificence, best exemplified in the Greek system. Members of the Panhellenic community enjoy unrivalled privileges here and apparently some of them seek to maintain the racial and class-based homogeneity of their exclusive groups.
The depiction of fraternities and sororities in popular culture is one of hedonism, camaraderie and widespread enjoyment. I have to admit that my exposure to the internal workings of the organisations has been limited so therefore I'm reluctant to make sweeping generalisations but the truth is far from red plastic cups and wild parties. The system by which freshmen 'pledge' and 'rush' in order to gain the approval of a judgemental and hugely powerful hierarchy leaves plenty young adults deemed 'not good enough'. To an English audience, the severity of this exclusion may not be apparent. However, UA's Greek system membership is around one in three students so adapting to a life in university without this 'family' is tough.
The University of Alabama newspaper, The Crimson White reported the rejection of a black girl by Alpha Gamma Delta. She apparently boasts a near-perfect academic record, comes from a well respected and established family in the area and was a salutatorian of her graduating class, which makes the decision seem ludicrous. According to the paper A number of especially brave members of the sorority expressed their dissatisfaction with the decision. Whilst Melanie Gotz's admirable act of disagreement is a significant step in the right direction, I feel the administration has thus far failed to act decisively on the matter and bring segregation to a true end.
President Bonner must run the risk of upsetting powerful alumni, and thus sacrificing their monetary contributions, in order to enact permanent change and confirm the University of Alabama as a progressive, liberal and crucially, equal educational institution.
Matthew Wood is currently on his year abroad, studying at the University of Alabama