Alabama: “Firestorm” against the first black student

On March 1, 1956, Autherine Lucy became the first African American to study at the University of Alabama. But an angry mob opposes her – and the university bowed to this.

Teaching was her goal. Even as a child, the African American Autherine Lucy had dreamed of standing in a classroom and teaching students. But the circumstances of her time made it difficult for her: since 1896, the southern states of the USA had had “separate but equal”, strict racial segregation between the white population and the Afro-American minority. There were public toilets, train compartments, hospitals or schools reserved for whites. There was a strict order of precedence on buses, also in favor of the whites. It was only a logical consequence that hospitals and educational institutions for Afro-Americans received far less state funding and enjoyed even less prestige.

Still, the daughter of an Alabama farmer stuck to her dream. She attended public school, graduated from Linden Academy, and enrolled in “black” Miles College. In 1952 she received her bachelor’s degree in English – and wrote applications. She was not heard. “It was generally difficult to get a job as a teacher, but as a young black girl it was particularly difficult,” Lucy would tell the Associated Press (AP) years later in an interview. She earned her living as a “salad girl” behind the counter of a cafeteria – until the civil rights movement NAACP (“National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People”) took notice of her.

Pollie Myers, an activist and friend of Lucy’s, had suggested to the organization that they enroll at the University of Alabama. Her hope: With a diploma from a traditionally white institution, no school in the country could deny her a job as a teacher. The NAACP’s hope: to break the racial barrier. And indeed: the women were admitted – for a short time. Because after a closer look at the documents, the authority revoked its decision. At first she hadn’t noticed that the prospective students’ skin wasn’t white.

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Backed by the NAACP, Lucy and Myers decided to sue the college for discrimination. The process dragged on for almost three years – a time that Lucy bridged by working as a secretary for an insurance company. And in which a milestone was set on a legal level: In 1954, the Supreme Court upheld a group of parents who found schools that segregated according to skin color violated the constitutional principle of equality. The decision marked the end of legally sanctioned racial segregation in state schools. Soon after, the verdict in the case of Lucy and Myers was reached: their rejection by the university was classified as inadmissible and Lucy was admitted to the university again. Myers, who had had an illegitimate child in the meantime, was denied access because of this.

Attacked with stones and eggs

On February 1, 1956, Lucy, now 26, enrolled in a library science major—the first African American to be admitted to the white University of Alabama. “I hoped it would be a stepping stone so that we could understand each other better in the future,” she told the AP in November 2002. She said to herself: “You mustn’t let fear stop you.” On the same day she attended her first course. “On the first day, a lot of students came up to me and said, ‘We hope you’ll be happy here,'” Lucy said. “The second day it was the same. The third day changed everything.”

An angry mob awaited the dark-skinned student on February 3, 1956 on the university campus. Eggs and stones flew. The “Atlanta Journal” will later write of a “racist firestorm” at “Bama”, as the University of Alabama is also known. Lucy took refuge in a lecture hall. From the courtyard side it boomed: “Hey, ho, ho, Autherine must go.” “I looked around,” she later says in interviews, “my classmates looked white as chalk.” She began to pray. “I didn’t come to the University of Alabama to die,” she was quoted as saying by Der Spiegel in May 1956.

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After class, Lucy was shown to an empty room. Around 300 whites, mostly workers, continued to riot on campus. The police arrived hours later, dispersed the crowd and drove the student to the apartment in Birmingham that she shared with her brother-in-law, her sister and their five children. That same evening she received a telegram from the university: she was being “temporarily expelled from the university for reasons of general and her own safety,” it said.

“I love those who are at university now”

Lucy and the NAACP responded with a complaint — and succeeded. On February 29, the Birmingham Federal Court ruled that Lucy was allowed to return to college and that she was responsible for her safety. But the university refused. She accused the African American of defamation. In the course of her complaint, she made “false and unsubstantiated allegations” towards the university. Lucy resigned. From then on she worked for the Civil Rights Association, gave speeches at NAACP meetings. In April 1956 she married Hugh Foster, whom she knew from Miles College.

After stops in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, the couple returned to Alabama in 1974, where the now 45-year-old received a position at the Birmingham School. 14 years later the satisfaction: In April 1988 her expulsion from the University of Alabama was officially declared invalid. She plucked up courage, re-enrolled and was awarded a master’s degree in May 1992. “It was important for me to go there,” says the 87-year-old. The American does not feel resentment: “I don’t love what happened. But I love those who are at university now – they didn’t do anything to me.”

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racial segregation in the United States

From 1896 to 1964 strict racial segregation (“separate but equal”) applied in the southern United States. In the 1950s and 1960s, African American resentment led to the emergence of civil rights movements. The Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education” (a class action lawsuit filed by parents against four states and the federal district who argued that segregated schools for students by race violated the equality principle of the United States Constitution) and “Bolling v. Sharpe” declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional in 1954 in every state including the federal district of Washington, DC.

Segregation was finally abolished on July 2, 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Civil Rights Act. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act followed, guaranteeing equal participation by minorities, especially African Americans, in US elections. However, there are still clearly separated “black” and “white” residential areas in the United States of America.

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