At University of Alabama, Sisterhood Is Prejudiced

Long-held ideas about white supremacy still play out in the sorority system

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Michelle Lepianka Carter / AP

Potential new sorority members during the annual Fall Formal Sorority Recruitment on the campus of the University of Alabama on Aug. 16, 2012

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.)

(MORE: Fifty Years After Bombing, Birmingham Is Resurrected)

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.)

(PHOTOS: The Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church)

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.”

MORE: Bill de Blasio Is the Right Kind of ‘Racist’

9 comments
UnniN
UnniN

In 2013, decades after segregation was officially ended in the country and a couple of centuries after Lincoln fought to end this social malady, an American University continued to harbour all white sororities....what kind of testimonial is it to the University and to the Society at large that this sort of segregation continued in full view of the Administration and everyone else? A University of all places one  supposed would be free of prejudice at least! And what else is it except a lingering enslavement of the mind when the few non white girls confessed to being thrilled to be finally admitted? The yearning and struggle "to belong" to the same social circle as a group that considered itself superior to them hitherto---really something they were desperate to get into?Wow! Had the sororities quietly and without fuss simply opened its admissions it would have been fine. But they had to beat the drums! And how will the few new girls comport themselves henceforth? With continuing expressions of gratitude and obeisance every time they pass a white girl in the corridor?

KianaWebb-Robinson
KianaWebb-Robinson

I would like to say as an  African-American who is a member of a African-American Sorority, there is not one African-American Greek Letter that discriminate against other people of color or White men or women. Since their founding each group has and will continue to encourage multicultural enrollment. In fact there are White members on roll since the days of "sit-ins: and boycotts!  After reading the previous post to this article I had to correct those comments made bigotry and stupidity.  PLEASE do the research before making uneducated and uninformed statements!

DontHitReplay
DontHitReplay

Although I completely agree with the racial prejudice in the Greek system at Alabama (and many other Southern schools), I think it's important to understand that there are black sororities and fraternities that don't allow white people in, either. It's difficult to hear one side, yet ignore the other. I am not saying this is not wrong, though. I am a current student at Alabama and their prejudice against so many women and men are the reason I decided not to rush and associate myself with these ideals. 

The decisions the alum make do not reflect every person at The University of Alabama. Yes, there are racists. There are racists no matter where you go. But not every student, Greek member, alumni, faculty/staff member, and resident of the state of Alabama is one. That is a clear distinction that has to be made.

DavidPugh
DavidPugh

do you include the sororities which allow only black students to be prejudicial groups which need to change ?

MaryEllenHood
MaryEllenHood

This is exactly what I would expect from sororities.  They are the ultimate snobs.

I would say, "Move on.  You have better things to do with your life than join these social snobs."  

I'm from Alabama, went to a private Baptist university, but only joined honorary clubs related to academic performance.  I just didn't have the time or temperament for the sorority snob scene.  ......Life is too short to be wasted on them in my humble opinion.

JeffFrank
JeffFrank

The young ladies could have done the right thing and told their "illustrious" alumnae to take a flying leap.  Instead they cow-towed to their demands so that they wouldn't lose the funding they provide.  Feh!

bill1
bill1

It is hard to believe - but then, again, it is Alabama!

Bullsgt
Bullsgt

Sororities, and fraternities suck.. Kind of why we join... To make a comparison with the 1950's stupidside.. That is a stretch.

The most racist group I've met is BLACK. Only 14% of the population. Yet they dominate the news, sports, anything to make others feel like sh*t that they got a bad deal. The news is to blame as much as anything. I'm tiered of the crap.  It's over, get off it!



mak4374
mak4374

@Bullsgt It's over? Dominate the news? Perhaps your insecurity of your own feelings, if not guilt, are coming through for everyone to see.  Because, what is the next logical step of those loosing the power to control everything? Blame those who gained the power of controlling EVERYTHING.