White sororities’ refusal to accept Black members at the University of Alabama became national news last week, and yesterday the university ordered greek organizations to integrate.
A decade after the Supreme Court struck down segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Southern universities remained racially segregated. On June 11, 1963, Vivian Malone and James Hood’s admission into the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa was blocked by Governor George Wallace.
Fifty years later, the university’s student body is nearly 80% white, and while Jewish and traditionally African American greek organizations have accepted diverse members over the years, only a single Black woman has pledged a traditionally white Panhellenic sorority through formal recruitment in the university’s history.
The university’s student newspaper, the Crimson White, reported last week that a prime recruit – with a 4.3 high school GPA, salutatorian of her graduating class, and a family with deep roots in local and state public service and a direct link to the university – did not receive a bid from any of the 16 Panhellenic sororities during formal recruitment because, sorority sisters said, she is Black. Members of several sororities reported that alumnae threatened to cut financial support if the recruit were to pledge.
Most of the sorority members spoke on condition of anonymity. As the New York Times reported this week, a secret society called the Machine, comprised of representatives from 28 of the white fraternities and sororities on campus, decides which candidates to back for student government, homecoming queen, and several honor societies, and has used cross burnings, threats, and boycotts, as well as intense social pressure, to ensure that its candidates win. Historically, those candidates have gone on to become lawyers, attorney generals, governors, and senators.
The greek systems at other large state schools in the Deep South, including Auburn University and the University of Mississippi, are more integrated than at Alabama.
The Crimson White story gained national attention over the past week and the university came under extensive criticism for racial bias in its greek organizations. On Monday, the University said it had ordered its traditionally white sororities to extend their recruitment efforts after rush in order “to remove barriers in order to increase diversity in our sororities.”