After a week of withering nationwide condemnation of the discriminatory practices of the University of Alabama’s white sororities, the university’s president announced yesterday that the segregated sororities have extended invitations to 11 black students, four of whom have accepted.
“I am confident that we will achieve our objective of a Greek system that is inclusive, accessible and welcoming to students of all races and ethnicities,” university President Judy Bonner said in a video statement. “We will not tolerate anything less.”
The president’s statement came on a day when hundreds of Alabama students, mostly white, and faculty staged a demonstration demanding an end to segregation in the sororities and fraternities. The demonstration comes 50 years after Gov. George Wallace physically attempted to block the enrollment of African-American students at the university by standing at the entrance to a school building.
Tracey Gholston, a black woman who is pursuing a doctorate in American literature at Alabama, told the New York Times that the racist legacy of Wallace was still in evidence at Alabama, 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 has a master’s degree from the university. “You can’t say, ‘We’re integrated. We’re fine.’ We’re not fine.”
In addition to the 11 black students, Bonner said invitations were extended to three students from other minority groups, two of whom accepted. She said she expected the numbers to rise as the academic year continues.
Bonner has instituted changes that she hopes will loosen the racial barriers at the Greek societies, such as requiring that the historically white sororities use a recruitment process in which new members can be added at any time, and expanding the maximum allowable size of the groups to 360 people to increase the chances for prospective members.
“While some sororities are further along than others, I am encouraged that chapter members are proactively reaching out to a diverse group of young women,” she said.
The Alabama story hit the national headlines after an article in the campus newspaper, The Crimson White, alleged that none of the school’s 16 Panhellenic organizations offered a bid to pledge two outstanding black women, reportedly in two cases because some alumni members threatened to cut off funding if they accepted a black pledge.
“UA Greek system is still almost completely divided along racial lines,” the article stated, and that the two women “tried to break what remains an almost impenetrable color barrier.”
One of the women, according to the newspaper, appeared to be a perfect candidate—a high school salutatorian with a 4.3 GPA and from a family “with deep roots in local and state public service and a direct link to the University of Alabama.”
The step-grandfather of that “perfect candidate” is Alabama Circuit Judge John England Jr., who sits on the school’s board of trustees. He told USA TODAY that he expressed concerns to Bonner and chancellor Robert Witt after learning that his step-granddaughter had been turned down by all 16 sororities. The student is also the stepdaughter of the judge’s son, state Rep. Christopher England, D-Ala.
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England, who has been a trustee for 15 years and is a graduate of the University of Alabama School of Law, said he believes the school’s leadership wants to do the right thing.
“I know there are people who still live in the ’50s and ’40s, but faculty, members of the Board of Trustees, the chancellor, the president – I know because I’ve had conversations with them – I know that they support the notion that no student should be denied admission to any organization based on race,” England said.
Bonner greeted the demonstrators when they arrived at the Rose Administration Building.
“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 black sophomore who told the Times she has considered joining one of the predominantly black sororities on the campus. “This was a great success today, but it’s just one step in the process.”
The university’s fraternity system, founded in 1847, 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 one demonstrator 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,” Sam Creden, a junior from Chicago and a member of Delta Sigma Phi, told the Times.
He said they were marching for a deeper, systemic 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.”