Lucy paves path, faces oppression
White people only-Keep out. Signs around campus read slogans like this and worse, during the passion-and-prejudice filled days of Autherine J. Lucy's acceptance into the University of Alabama. As the first black student admitted on campus, Lucy was not warmly welcomed by the community at large. Racial prejudices were a dime a dozen in 1956, and Lucy's three-day tenure as a student worked as an excuse to let the bigotry flow. However, Lucy’s victory was short-lived. After three chaotic days with Lucy on campus, the Board of Trustees succumbed to the wishes of a terrifying mob that would stop at nothing to “Keep ’Bama White.”
“I remember that Autherine Lucy came into my office to register for classes because Graves Hall was filled with students, newspaper people and curiosity,” said the former registrar for the college of education, M. L. Roberts. “Ms. Lucy was planning to get a master’s degree in school librarianship.”
Roberts recalled spending a good deal of time helping Lucy select her courses that morning, and said she was dressed stylishly in a nice suit.
“I felt like she was just like any other student registering for classes,” Roberts said.
However, the general mindset that Lucy was out of place was glaringly obvious. The Board of Trustees did not allow her to have a room in a residence hall or a meal ticket, as is written in the papers of Sarah L. Healy, former UA dean of women.
“I told Autherine of the tensions evidenced by various cross burnings which had taken place within the past few days after it had been announced that she would be admitted,” Healy wrote. “I told her the University did not believe it was wise or possible at the time for her to be housed on campus.”
Tensions were high because the University did not have a single black student, and that’s just the way it was, said Jim W. Oakley Jr., a former member of the University News Bureau and former photographer for The Crimson White. Lucy began her classes on Jan. 3, 1956, and all hell broke loose.
“I heard a big crowd of people yelling and screaming outside of the President’s Mansion the first night after she had attended classes,” Oakley said. “It all started with the burning of a cross in front of Denny Chimes after a basketball game.”
Healy writes that she saw people at the basketball game in Foster Auditorium waving Confederate flags and saying, “We will meet at Denny Chimes.” Healy wrote that she didn’t believe that group was comprised primarily of students.
“All of the outsiders made it scary,” Oakley said. “It elevated to mob take-over with people wielding axes, throwing rocks at cars and trying to turn over a bus. These people were serious about not wanting Autherine Lucy in this college.”
Oakley remembered photographing a Ku Klux Klan meeting on the steps of Reese Phifer Hall, which was then known as the Union Building. He also attended a Klan cross burning at a local Episcopal church, and he said he experienced one dangerous encounter with the group.
“I was walking around in the crowd, when one of them called me by name and told me I’d better get out of there,” Oakley said. “He pulled up his robe a little and showed me a gun. I got out of there pretty fast after that.”
Oakley described the Klan leader as wearing the most beautiful, shiny, crimson robe he has ever seen. The rest of the members were dressed in white, and they all wore pointed head coverings. He managed to obtain several photographs, but the FBI later confiscated most of the film.
“It was wild,” Oakley said. “There were news reporters here from all over the world—places like the Netherlands, France and Africa. I remember it being very exciting for me, to meet all of these prominent news people that I had only seen on TV.”
A group of approximately 200 people, dressed in workmen’s clothes, surrounded Smith Hall and hurled rotten eggs at Lucy on Feb. 6, 1956. This was the last day Lucy would be able to attend classes.
Healy wrote that she had to sneak Lucy out the back door to drive her to Graves Hall for her next class. She recalled that eggs, rocks and mud were hurled at the car, and people were yelling, “get the n----r.”
“It was an unfortunate thing that the mob did a great deal of damage to Ms. Healy’s car, though she did manage to get Lucy to what is now McLure Education Library facing University Boulevard,” Roberts said. “The mob was everywhere on campus. Dean [Louis] Corston asked me to escort some of the policemen to where Ms. Lucy was through an underground passageway.”
Healy suggested Lucy stay in the education building until the police said it was safe to leave.
“I went over to the Education Library and stayed with Mrs. Healy and Ms. Lucy in a small conference room on the second floor,” Roberts said. “We stayed there until mid-afternoon, when the mob finally cleared out enough so the state troopers could get Ms. Lucy out the back door of the building and into a car to go back to Birmingham.”
Roberts recalled talking to Lucy during that time in the conference room, and he said she did not give any outward appearance of being frightened.
“She was concerned about a man who had driven her from Birmingham to the campus that morning,” Roberts recalled. “He had gone to meet a friend downtown, and she was worried, as we all were, that this man might come back to campus to pick her up at noon-time and the mob would do damage to his Cadillac.”
Roberts said Lucy told him she did not believe it was the students who were behaving so violently. She told him many of them had welcomed her on campus.
Regardless of who was actually responsible for the bedlam, the Board of Trustees voted for the indefinite suspension of Lucy on the grounds that the University administration could not keep her safe.
However, the first black president of the Student Government Association, Cleo Thomas, said he is not quite sure if this was a valid reason for kicking her off campus.
“If she had the courage to come, I can’t imagine they didn’t have the resources to protect her,” Thomas said. “Therein lies the tragedy. What have we ever done to challenge the mindset that would make it unsafe for a young girl to go to college?”
Thomas said he sees Lucy as a historic opening, in that she was the first black student to come to the Capstone.
“It was a bold first step that was ultimately rebuffed,” Thomas said. “Autherine Lucy was first. Autherine Lucy was heroic.”