"Jim Crow sentries patrol Greek houses at Alabama"
October 12, 2001
WASHINGTON — Melody Twilley is a two-time loser.
Last month, her bid to become the first black student that a white sorority at the University of Alabama knowingly admitted was rejected for the second straight year. The color barrier was broken in one of the school's 15 white sororities last year by a student who appears white but is half black, a fact that escaped the notice of the Greek organizations' Jim Crow sentries.
There was no doubt about the race of Twilley, an 18-year-old junior who entered college early after skipping two grades. Following her rejection last year, university officials lobbied the white sororities to open their doors — if not their hearts — to Twilley, who has a 3.85 grade-point average and sings first soprano in the school choir.
But when she joined the hundreds of women last month who took part in the sorority "rush," a ritualistic process in which students go from one sorority to another in search of one that will invite them to join, the deck was stacked against her.
Just one of the white sororities invited Twilley back for a second look and then quickly voted down her selection. The sororities offered no explanation for their rejection, a decision that upset university officials who are haunted by the image of then-Gov. George Wallace standing in a campus doorway in 1963 to block the admission of black students.
Twilley's rejection is reported to have been mandated by a shadowy group of white students and alumni called "the Machine," which is said to control a good bit of what happens on the Tuscaloosa campus. "The Machine" is the linear successor to Wallace, who proclaimed during his 1963 inaugural address: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
In the 38 years since blacks students were admitted to the University of Alabama, none of the school's white fraternities and sororities has knowingly accepted an African American as a member.
While Twilley's plight caught the attention of some news organizations, civil rights groups largely have ignored it. That's understandable. Twilley's desire to join a white social circle that seems hell-bent on maintaining its whites-only status hardly is the stuff of civil rights protests. Her desire to move into a white sorority house and take part in the group's social gatherings and parties is not a goal likely to spark new freedom rides or sit-in demonstrations.
It is, however, instructive of the continuing nature of racial bias in this country — and the failure of university officials to act forcefully to address this problem.
"I'm sympathetic, but with everything else that is going on, it's not really a major priority given what else we have on our plate concerning discrimination in our society," Mary Frances Berry, who chairs the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said of Twilley's failure to gain admission to one of the school's white sororities.
Berry is right. In the broad scheme of things, Twilley's problem doesn't rise to the level of concern that racial profiling, voter disenfranchisement or mortgage redlining generates.
There's a big difference between public acts of racial bias and the acts committed by private groups. But while the University of Alabama's sororities and fraternities have a right to maintain their whites-only status, school officials have a duty to sever their ties with the Greek organizations that choose to do so. The Constitution's 14th Amendment forbids "state action" that supports racial discrimination. The university — a state school — provides fraternities and sororities with land and buildings.
It shouldn't take pressure from civil rights activists or organizations to force the University of Alabama to strip the all-white fraternities and sororities of these state-funded perks — but if the school drags its feet, a federal lawsuit may be needed to make it do the right thing.