UA alumni discuss racial progress on campus

UA alumni discuss racial progress on campus

CW File

It was 1976, and the Tide was turning.

It had been turning for some time. The waves started when Autherine Lucy first stepped onto the University of Alabama campus on Feb. 3, 1956, to burning crosses and degrading chants from fellow students. They continued as students lined the path leading to Foster Auditorium in 1963, watching Vivian Malone and James Hood walk past then-Governor George Wallace to review the course schedule and pay their fees, trailed by members of the National Guard.

Thirteen years after Wallace’s stand, Cleo Thomas boldly smashed through another long-standing barrier to become The University of Alabama’s first black Student Government Association president in what he considers to be a golden era of minority progress at the school.

“There was this real tradition of openness, a very progressive spirit,” Thomas said. “I loved the University and my University years. I never felt limited or constrained. The year before I was president, Sylvester Jones served as a vice president. Two of the four homecoming queens in my time were black. We came to the University and thought it was ours, and we acted like it was ours – it was really a halcyon period.”

However, in the time since the student demonstrations for racial diversity in November 2015, and even before, Thomas, now an alumni and former Board of Trustees member, feels as though he has seen those tides turn yet again in a less favorable way – as tensions have risen over racial disparities at the University over the years, Thomas said he’s watched UA begin to close itself off in a way he’d never seen as a student.

“As the years passed, I watched it [the University] become much less open, much more oppressive, so much more subject to the controls of a power elite,” Thomas said. “It was not that way in 1977. It just wasn’t.”

Thomas said he believes where the construction on campus started, the progress stopped, as the University began to prioritize physical growth under then-president and chancellor Robert Witt.

“It has been very regressive socially,” Thomas said. “For all the bricks and mortar, it’s made the spirit of the place much less open, much more rigid. Much less civil and collaborative and progressive.”

The University said they are pushing for inclusiveness and diversity at UA.

One of the four goals in The University of Alabama’s Strategic Plan is to enrich our learning and work environment by providing an accepting, inclusive community that attracts and supports a diverse faculty, staff and student body. This is one of our highest priorities. We have done and are doing some good things in support of this goal,” said Chris Bryant, director of Media Relations for the University of Alabama.

For Walter Lewis, the 70s were a period of growth in Alabama athletics as players like John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson paved the way for him to take the field in 1980 as the Crimson Tide’s first black quarterback. As a player, he wasn’t heavily exposed to the social climate on campus, but he felt the same level of progress and acceptance on the field, much of which came from then-coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.

“That’s why [coach] Bryant was so successful,” Lewis said. “He realized the importance of focus, whether you were white or black. Coach Bryant understood the dynamics, he understood the political culture, he understood the social culture we were in, and he was not immune to it himself – he grew up with nothing... when you understand the real world, you have a platform you can give to others who don’t.”

Though Lewis was relatively isolated from the campus social climate – Bryant kept them too busy on the field for extracurriculars – he said he has had to learn how to handle life off the field and adjust to the racial landscape that differed from the one he faced on the field.

“On a football field, it’s level,” Lewis said. “It’s 11 on 11. Everyone has a common goal. There’s no room for selfishness... In society, it’s not that way. In society, you’re not playing 11 on 11. It’s 12 on 11, 13 on 11. There’s far more to deal with, and sometimes, you might not get a fair shake. But those are lessons you learn as an athlete – life is not fair.”

While Lewis also believes race relations have gone somewhat tepid since his time at UA, he said he sees a constant opportunity for progress.

“There are issues here that have come a long way, but there’s still tons to be done,” Lewis said. “It’s a generational thing. It takes a while to clean out a generation... And the only thing that can uproot the situation is the change of a person’s heart. It’s the transplanting of a heart. What’s on the inside of the heart is what really drives what a person’s about.”

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