The first headlines in newspapers across the country on Sept. 11, 2001 didn’t come from New York City. Before four airliners changed course and changed history, one of the top national stories that day was about a girl, a dream and the sororities at the University of Alabama.
Sept. 9, 2001 had been bid day. Melody Twilley (now Melody Zeidan), a black sophomore, had just been summarily rejected by all traditionally white sororities at Alabama for the second year in a row.
“It was probably the worst day of my life,” said Zeidan. “I had gotten used to the media attention at that time, but… clearly I was not happy that 9/11 happened, but I was glad not to have the media coverage on me.”
Her second attempt at rush started out full of promise. Zeidan had attained recommendations from contacts and alumni from nearly every major sorority. Everything was moving smoothly, she recalled, until the third round of the selections process.
In one-on-one interviews, the girls of one particular house asked if she had an agenda.
How could they not ask? Every girl in rush had seen the cameras following Melody that year. Questions had to be swirling about why this girl, different but determined, was really trying to join a traditionally white sorority.
“I told them I’m here for the same reason as everybody else, which was that I wanted to have the sorority experience,” Zeidan said. “I wanted them to understand that I wasn’t getting in to prove a point.”
Ten years after Zeidan’s experience, traditionally white sororities at the University of Alabama are still segregated — but that’s not to say a few black women haven’t tried to join. They have — most recently in 2011, as part of the largest rush class in the nation.
Zeidan grew up in Camden, Ala., the daughter of a successful timber businessman. She came to campus boasting a 3.85 GPA and was part of so many extracurricular activities at the Alabama School of Math and Science in Mobile — the school she attended her last two years of high school — she can hardly remember the full list. Joining a sorority, she said, simply seemed to her like the right thing to do when she got to Alabama in 2000.
“I went into rush with a blank slate,” she said. “All I knew about sororities was that you join when you go to college, and that is how you make friends.”
No one seemed to treat her differently at all during rush week, and Melody enjoyed herself. Ultimately, though, she wouldn’t get a bid — at first, Melody said it didn’t bother her. Thinking only a small percentage of girls got in, and with other things on her plate, she moved on.
Several months later, during SGA election season, something changed her mind. The hottest topics on campus at that time were segregation, racism, and something about a “Machine.”
“I was talking with somebody about…that, and I mentioned that I had gone through rush. She said, ‘Oh, you know they don’t take black people, right?’”
Melody was shocked.
“I asked, ‘What do you mean, they don’t take black people? You can’t not take black people, that’s crazy. Come on, it’s 2000, guys,’” she said. “I was embarrassed for Alabama. Why would my school I love so much be acting so utterly stupid?”
After the shock came the pain of rejection — months late, maybe, but no less hurtful.
“It didn’t occur to me to be offended until then,” she said.
If being rejected from rush hurt her, she said, it was a letter to the editor in The Crimson White that made her mad. The letter, from an independent male student, said it wasn’t a “race thing” — black people just weren’t trying.
Melody read it and angrily wrote back.
“I, an African-American female, participated in Fall Rush 2000, and I have the T-shirt to prove it,” her letter read. “I was dropped from rush after the second round of events, and I will leave it up to the reader to decide why.”
Her letter got her regional media attention, something Melody said she didn’t expect. To deal with it all, she found a mentor in English professor John Herman — the person who first suggested to her the idea of going through rush again.
She did. Knowing her chances were slim as a sophomore, Zeidan went through everything — the door songs, the crafts and the friendly conversations — again in the fall of 2001. And, at the end, she again went through the rejection.
This year, Sherles Durham came to Alabama from Douglasville, Ga., with a 3.6 high school GPA. Sherles was vice president of her senior class and regularly volunteered at her community’s local Special Olympics. Like Zeidan, Durham rushed to make friends but said she didn’t expect to pledge.
“I just wanted to make friends out of the experience,” Durham said, “which I did.”
This fall, 1,711 women participated in rush, according to a University spokeswoman. Of those, 77 were released without a bid. Durham was one of them.
“Thursday [of rush week], I got a call telling me I had been dropped from recruitment,” Durham said. “I didn’t expect it to happen so soon, because I thought everything was going so well.”
She was out in the third round of events, making it one round further than Melody Zeidan had 11 years before. She said she wouldn’t change her rush experience but noticed something seemed wrong.
“I’ve been trying not to look at it this way because, you know, sometimes when it’s brought into question, some people get offended, but I think race might have come into play,” Durham said. “If all the girls who went into rush week were completely covered or blocked from view in some way, I think the outcomes could be completely different.
“I don’t understand what I could do as a person to make someone want me in their group unless I pretended to be someone I’m not,” she said. “Sometimes I doubt whether I should have done it or not, to not have just wasted the time and money to be disappointed.”
Melody Zeidan went on to enjoy her college years, starting student groups that focused on promoting diversity and even founding a sorority herself, Alpha Delta Sigma. Her life wouldn’t have really been any different had she been part of a traditionally white sorority, she said.
Even so, Zeidan said she has little advice for the girls who have gone through the same experience she did in 2000 and again in 2001.
“As far as consolation, I don’t have anything to say. I’m still hurt, and it’s been ten years,” she said. “For encouragement, accept that that’s maybe a part of life. Being rejected just means that somebody couldn’t appreciate how great you are. It’s not really something that you get over easily…to say that I don’t care anymore would be a total lie. Even ten years later, looking back on it, I’m still very upset.”
It’s especially upsetting, Zeidan said, when a person’s race decides the outcome for them.
“There’s nothing I could have done,” she said. “That whole lack of control over the situation is…heartbreaking. It’s like saying a person is born not good enough.”
Melody insists, though, that her cause was very personal.
“It wasn’t my opposite stand-in-the-schoolhouse door,” she said. “To this day I don’t think integration for integration’s sake is important…I just want every person at Alabama to find a place where they fit in best.”
Sherles Durham said she won’t rush again. For her, that place is not Sorority Row.
Stephen Nathaniel Dethrage contributed to this report. Read Thursday’s edition of The Crimson White for part two of this series, where we look at administrative policies toward integrating the greek system.