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  • University of Alabama Greeks during the Turbulent Sixties
  • Earl H. Tilford (bio)

On june 11, 2013, in foster auditorium, where fifty years earlier Governor George C. Wallace attempted but failed to block the admission of Vivian J. Malone and James A. Hood, the University of Alabama initiated a celebratory year with a gathering of alumni, students, faculty and community leaders marking a half-century since the university's desegregation. One of the speakers, Judge John England of the Alabama Sixth Circuit Court, a former member of the Alabama Supreme Court and a university trustee, told the audience that his ability to enroll just a few years after Governor George C. Wallace's infamous "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door" fulfilled a childhood dream that seemed impossible to him as a black youngster. The judge noted that his children were Alabama alumni and proudly stated that his granddaughter would be a first-year student at the start of the fall semester.1

In September, after Judge England's granddaughter and another black rushee were dropped from sorority rush, accusations of racial discrimination followed. When England asked the university's administration to look into the matter, President Judy Bonner re-opened rush and extended it indefinitely.2 By November a dozen black rushees [End Page 132] had received bids to previously all-white Greek letter societies and an African American student, Hanna Patterson, had been elected president of Sigma Delta Tau, a sorority established at the University of Alabama in 1935 and founded earlier at Cornell University by Jewish coeds excluded from other sororities.3 Though the Greek system had technically integrated in 2001, when a previously all-white fraternity pledged a black rushee, the events of 2013 resulted in a system that was less rigidly segregated, if far from fully integrated.4

Greek life at the university has long been an integral part of the college experience for a significant portion of matriculating students. The Capstone's system, reputed since 2011 to be the nation's largest, reaches a significant proportion of the student body; at the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year, the campus's 67 social fraternities and sororities counted approximately 11,500 members, representing 34 percent of all undergraduates.5 Beyond sheer numbers, the Greek system has long enjoyed powerful connections to the state's political, economic, and social elite; these connections solidified in the period between the end of World War II and the 1960s.

For young men, the Greek system historically provided access to connections for careers in business, law, and politics along with social camaraderie. Accordingly, members tended to major in history and political science to prepare for law school or to major in commerce and business administration. (Young men majoring in natural sciences or engineering more often remained independent due to the intense academic requirements associated with those curricula.) Upon graduating, fraternity men enjoyed access to a number of powerful alumni. Longstanding senator Richard Shelby and former governor Don Siegelman emerged from the Greek system, as did many Alabama political icons before them, including senators Lister Hill and John Sparkman and former Alabama attorney general, Bill Baxley. In fact, eight of the twenty-three Alabama governors in the [End Page 133] twentieth century were Alabama alumni (compared to two Auburn alumni), and of the eight, seven were fraternity members. The sole exception was George Wallace, an independent who worked his way through college.6

For women, at least historically, the goals of Greek life were more practical. For instance, at the University of Alabama in the 1960s, single female undergraduates were required to live in dormitories and purchase food contracts. Sorority houses, which offered a more home-like environment and better food, proved appealing. Additionally, during this period, many young women went to college to find a suitable marriage partner, and Greek life offered access to young men with good prospects. Before women acquired access to a wider range of career opportunities in the following decades, majors in education and home economics were popular for both female independents and sorority members. Home economics attracted women intent on raising families and being a "good helpmate" to their husbands. For those who failed to acquire...


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