The United States Supreme Court soon will deal with whether or not the University of Michigan can use race as a determinant in admissions. I thought the courts already settled this in the 1960s. At least that’s the way it seemed to me at the University of Alabama in June 1963 when the Justice Department bypassed Gov. George Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door” to desegregate my alma mater.
Perhaps things have come full circle.
In the spring of 1967, a few years after the University was desegregated, when the fraternity boys partying in the apartment beneath mine rocked way past the midnight hour, I took to stomping on the floor. Eventually, a pair of quite drunk, sloppily apologetic brothers, accoutered in Confederate army uniforms, negotiated the stairs up to my place. They explained it was “Old South Week,” a hallowed tradition in the Kappa Alpha fraternity and they apologized if their “commitment to our past” interfered with my studying. “But, since Robert E. Lee himself founded Kappa Alpha, any real Southerner would want to celebrate.” Didn’t I understand?
With final exams approaching I needed to salvage what study time I could from the wee hours of Friday morning. Nevertheless, not wanting to seem impolite, I quickly devised a strategy to get rid of my gray-clad guests.
“I was talking to a buddy of mine who’s a KA at Vanderbilt,” I fibbed, “and he told me they just pledged a Negro.” Looks of drunken astonishment filled their flushed faces. Resembling two shell-shocked survivors of Pickett’s Charge, they beat a stumbling retreat downstairs to phone the KA house in Nashville and left me to my studying.
Old South Week notwithstanding, by 1967, the University of Alabama was well on its way to becoming a racially integrated institution — an island of liberalism in a sea of conservatism. Fast forward to the mid-1990s.
Shortly after my son enrolled at one of Pennsylvania’s directional state universities, my family and I attended “Parents’ Weekend.” In addition to meeting professors and having lunch in the student cafeteria, the package included free football tickets. Accordingly, my son and I went to the student union building to get ours.
While standing in line I noticed a nearby television room. The “NCAA Game of the Week” was on, featuring the Alabama Crimson Tide. I wandered into the room and sat down. Faster than you can say “Roll Tide,” my son was at the door, “Dad, I got to talk to you!” “In a minute,” I protested, “Bama’s about to score.” “No, Dad! I got to speak to you now!” Given the urgency in his voice, I reluctantly withdrew.
Under his breath, with furtive looks to the side as if Big Brother might be listening, he informed me I couldn’t watch the game in that room because “it’s the African-American TV lounge.” I was astounded, “You mean only black students can watch TV in there?” He assured me that was the case. “Well,” I inquired, “where’s the white students’ TV lounge?” I added that at state colleges and universities segregation had been illegal for nearly a half century.
At that point, a guy with a beard and hair to his shoulders, who I took to be a professor, overheard my protestations. He informed me I was displaying “a great deal of insensitivity” toward university policies on multi-culturalism and diversity. Lest my son end up in a sensitivity re-education class, I mollified the professor with, “Yeah, I think segregation and racism suck.”
In June 1963, the administration, faculty, students, Forrest Gump and I — with help from Bobby Kennedy and the Justice Department — moved the University of Alabama into the 20th century, aligning it with the forces of equal opportunity and social justice.
In the autumn of 1996, on a campus in Pennsylvania, it seemed as if segregation had come full circle.
I wondered if the murder of civil rights workers during the Mississippi Summer of 1964, the Selma-to-Montgomery March the following spring and Martin Luther King’s message about judging people based on the content of their character rather than skin color meant anything after all.
Segregation, it seems, like notions of beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Once again, it also is in the chambers of the Supreme Court.