University of Alabama, 1956
600 years after the St Scholastica Day Riot, a long way from Oxford, students in Alabama were in uproar. This time, however, there ire was directed towards one of their own: a studious young woman named Autherine Lucy. Her admission to the University of Alabama in 1956, after several failed attempts, was very controversial, and most students opposed her enrolment. Who was this young woman whose mere presence invited so much ire: a violent criminal, a terrorist, an unpopular policitican, or a practicing Satanist (remember we’re talking the Deep South, here)? None of the above, actually: she was black.
Autherine was the daughter of a sharecropper from Shiloh, Alabama. She had already graduated with a BA in English from Selma University in 1952, and wanted to add a Masters Degree in Elementary Education from her home state to enable her to become a teacher. At the time, the University of Alabama was an all-white institution, but Autherine and her friend, Pollie Ann Myers, rightly felt that education should have no colour, and were accepted in 1952. They were then summarily rejected when admissions officers noticed that the bright young women were black when they came to enrol in person.
Autherine and Pollie tried unsuccessfully to overturn the decision, but two years later, in 1954, the famous Brown v. Board of Education case made racial segregation illegal in public schools. They petitioned again, and in 1955 a federal judge ruled that the university had to admit the two women, but the University of Alabama did manage to reduce their population of black students by 50% when it discovered that Pollie had been pregnant out of wedlock. Bravely, Autherine decided to go ahead with the MA, and enrolled on 1st February 1956. Legal or not, many would not accept the ruling.
Autherine was not allowed to live on campus, and had to be ferried to and from her classes by supportive members of the black community. Although some white students quietly supported her, after only a few days of studying her family were receiving death threats. By the third day of her classes, an angry mob had formed, waving Confederate Flags and burning desegregation literature. Chanting racist slogans, they threw eggs at Autherine, and threatened to kill her. Fortunately, Autherine managed to lock herself in a safe room, and was escorted from campus by the police. She only wanted to study.
So what happened next? Autherine, who really had done nothing wrong, was expelled from the university. Having seen the angry mob, the bonfires, and the widespread disorder on campus, the university board decided that it was unsafe for Lucy to attend. Whether this was out of cowardice or racism outdated even in 1956, their decision stood, and the angry mob got their way. It was not until 1988 that the University of Alabama lifted her ban, and she returned to study, receiving her MA in 1992 at the age of 62. In penance, the university named a scholarship after Autherine.