Integrating Higher Education

Autherine Lucy was born in a sharecropper family in Alabama. She had five brothers and three sisters. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Miles College in 1952. When she graduated, her friend who was an NAACP activist suggested she apply for graduate school at the University of Alabama.

Autherine applied, and she was accepted until the University found out she was not white. After the NAACP sued, she was admitted but was not allowed to live in a dorm or eat in a dining hall.

Autherine attended her first class on Friday, February 3, 1956. On Monday riots broke out. The car of the Dean of the woman who drove her to class was pelted. Threats were made against her life. The President’s home was stoned. Rather than deal with those inflicting the violence, the University suspended Autherine for her own “safety”.

The NAACP sued the University, its trustees, and others. The Federal Court in Alabama ordered that she be reinstated. The court also ordered that the University protect her. Once she reenrolled, the University’s trustees again expelled her on a phony charge. The University President resigned in protest.

After her failed attempt to get a graduate degree, Autherine attempted to get teaching positions in various southern states. She was turned down due to her notoriety. She was finally able to get a position in the Birmingham school system.

In 1988, the University of Alabama rescinded her earlier expulsion (after the University integrated its sports programs). In 1992, 36 years after she first attempted to get a graduate degree, she earned an MA in Education.

A clock tower has now been erected on campus in her honor. The University has also honored her with an honorary doctorate degree.

Hidden heroes are often thrust into situations, almost by accident. Autherine had not envisioned herself being a civil rights hero, but once in the situation, she performed with courage. She paid a price for her willingness to stand up for her rights but ultimately was honored for her willingness to push for social justice.

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“Whatever happens in the future, remember for all concerned, that your contribution has been made toward equal justice for all Americans and that you have done everything in your power to bring this about.”  – (letter from Thurgood Marshall to Autherine)

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