On Sunday morning, while catching up on the storm of criticism swirling around the University of Alabama in the wake of a disturbing report on the systemic discrimination within the school’s Greek sororities, a more urgent and devastating reminder of that state’s troubled history came across my Twitter feed. Fifty years ago yesterday, on Sept. 15, 1963, a bombing carried out by domestic terrorists at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church claimed the lives of four Sunday schoolers, all of them girls. (In addition to the violent of deaths of the four — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair — close to two dozen other people were injured, including Collins’ younger sister.)
The crime, committed by a group of white supremacists enraged by plans to integrate Alabama schools and other public spaces, is one of those shameful, seminal moments in American history that remains unknown to many despite the public outcries and political progressions that accompanied it. (Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law the following year; in 1997, filmmaker Spike Lee introduced the tragic story to a new generation of Americans with the release of his award-winning HBO documentary 4 Little Girls. Had they survived, Collins, Wesley, Robertson and McNair would now be in their early to mid-60s.)
It is difficult — perhaps even ill-advised — to draw a connection between the purposeful yet casual racism that sees highly credentialed African-American applicants denied admission to a sorority and the sort of festering hatred that compels a group of Klan members to deposit sticks of dynamite near the basement sanctuary of a house of worship where children were preparing for a Sunday-school sermon titled “The love that forgives.”
But I have a hard time rejecting the association, because it occurs to me that many of alumni behind the UA sororities’ rejection of black pledges came of age when racism was not only violent and out in the open but also publicly encouraged. “The entire house wanted [a standout African-American recruit] to be in Alpha Gam,” a sorority member, Melanie Gotz, told UA’s the Crimson White newspaper in a story titled “The final barrier.” “We were just powerless over the alums.” (Members of three other UA sororities, including Delta Delta Delta, Chi Omega and Pi Beta Phi echoed Gotz’s allegations of mistreatment of black pledges by influential and bigoted alumnae.)
This, you see, is how the thread of history works, how centuries of state-sponsored white supremacy are reflected and replicated decades down the line, and how our nation’s daughters and sons continue to pay — and exact — a price. It may be, as Gotz pointed out, the 21st century, but that we have among us members of a generation who would still deny agency, legitimacy and full humanity to their fellow citizens should not be cause for surprise. To be sure, the rejection of deserving applicants to Alabama sororities does not have the same immoral stink or obscenity of violence as the maiming and murder of churchgoing schoolchildren, but it’s hard not to notice that both send a similar, depressingly familiar message: You do not belong here.
The only consolation to be found in this latest example of Alabama’s ugly legacy is that many of these sororities’ active members seem disgusted by such institutional intolerance, proving yet again that sometimes its kids, not their elders, who behave like the real adults in any given room. (One young woman, a philanthropy chair for Chi Omega, was so repulsed by the discriminatory recruitment process that she resigned from the sorority.) “How much longer is it going to take till we have a black girl in a sorority?” said Gotz, whose house embraces the motto “Live with purpose.” “It’s been years, and it hasn’t happened.”