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"BLACK, WHITE & GREEK"
Diane Roberts
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
October 28, 1998


The University of Alabama explores the idea of integrating one of the last bastions of institutional segregation: the system of fraternities and sororities

A committee of administrators, faculty, black and white sorority and fraternity members, advisers and alumni have been charged with putting in place a list of recommendations for "Greek diversity." With 13 percent of its undergraduate enrollment African-American, the university wants to see training in diversity, a single Greek governing organization and a unified rush, the period in which sororities and fraternities recruit new members.

Bringing the best brains in the university to bear on something as ostensibly trivial as who gets to wear what Greek letters on their T-shirt may seem excessive. But Greek houses matter, especially on Southern campuses where a student's choice of Chi Omega or Delta Sigma Theta, Alpha Phi Alpha or Kappa Alpha affects career, marriage partner, even a possible political future. African-American sororities and fraternities are prime networking ground for the growing Southern black middle class. And exclusive as the white fraternities and sororities are at Alabama, there is a cabal within called Theta Nu Epsilon or the Machine, which has for years controlled student government and other student organizations at the university. Machine connections help in the grown-up world, too: Many Alabama legislators and members of the Alabama Bar are alumni of Machine fraternities. Gov.-elect Don Siegelman is a Delta Kappa Epsilon --- one of the grandest of Machine frats, housed in an antebellum mansion on Old Row.

Indeed, institutions such as the University of Georgia, Florida State University, the University of North Carolina and the University of Mississippi are not concertedly trying to break the color barrier. Darrell Ray, assistant coordinator of Greek life at the University of Georgia and a former vice president of Pan-Greek at the University of Alabama, says there's a "lack of desire" for a formal mandate at Georgia, but he points out that several new white fraternity "colonies" (re-established houses) have some African-American members. Similarly, the University of Mississippi has no plans to push for any kind of affirmative action, though administrators and Greek life officers there point out that there is a white sorority with a black member.


The University of Alabama looks like a museum of plantation houses. From the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library to the fraternity and sorority houses along Old Row and Magnolia Drive in Tuscaloosa, most of the buildings boast white columns, tall windows and satiny lawns. Just the way people expect this most Old South of Deep South universities to look.

Two defining images of Alabama --- football coach Bear Bryant winning multiple national championships and arch-segregationalist George Wallace "standing in the schoolhouse door" --- are part of its history. Another image, that of the state's young aristocrats and future social and political elite gathering in all-white Greek organizations, may also become a thing of the past.

If University President Andrew Sorensen and the university administration have their way, the white fraternities and sororities and their African-American counterparts will be nudged toward democratizing their membership with integration the goal --- someday.

A committee of administrators, faculty, black and white sorority and fraternity members, advisers and alumni have been charged with putting in place a list of recommendations for "Greek diversity." With 13 percent of its undergraduate enrollment African-American, the university wants to see training in diversity, a single Greek governing organization and a unified rush, the period in which sororities and fraternities recruit new members.

The current system is Byzantine: The historically white fraternities are governed by an Interfraternity Council and white sororities by Panhellenic, while the historically black fraternities and sororities are headed by a body called Pan-Greek. White Greeks rush in the autumn with ritualized and elaborate parties, while Pan-Greek rush is a less giddy process in the spring.

Bringing the best brains in the university to bear on something as ostensibly trivial as who gets to wear what Greek letters on their T-shirt may seem excessive. But Greek houses matter, especially on Southern campuses where a student's choice of Chi Omega or Delta Sigma Theta, Alpha Phi Alpha or Kappa Alpha affects career, marriage partner, even a possible political future. African-American sororities and fraternities are prime networking ground for the growing Southern black middle class. And exclusive as the white fraternities and sororities are at Alabama, there is a cabal within called Theta Nu Epsilon or the Machine, which has for years controlled student government and other student organizations at the university. Machine connections help in the grown-up world, too: Many Alabama legislators and members of the Alabama Bar are alumni of Machine fraternities. Gov.-elect Don Siegelman is a Delta Kappa Epsilon --- one of the grandest of Machine frats, housed in an antebellum mansion on Old Row.

Charles Brown, vice president for student affairs and co-chairman of the university's diversity committee, says his aim is "to create an atmosphere on the campus where students feel that they can be members of any organization." He points out that the University of Alabama is ahead of other Southern universities.

Indeed, institutions such as the University of Georgia, Florida State University, the University of North Carolina and the University of Mississippi are not concertedly trying to break the color barrier. Darrell Ray, assistant coordinator of Greek life at the University of Georgia and a former vice president of Pan-Greek at the University of Alabama, says there's a "lack of desire" for a formal mandate at Georgia, but he points out that several new white fraternity "colonies" (re-established houses) have some African-American members. Similarly, the University of Mississippi has no plans to push for any kind of affirmative action, though administrators and Greek life officers there point out that there is a white sorority with a black member.

Fraternities and sororities at the University of Alabama are not officially integrated, although some predominantly black fraternities have, in past years, had white members. There has even been a black member of a white fraternity. But nobody would call this real integration. Moreover, two young African-American women recently went through Panhellenic rush but were not accepted by any white sorority.

The University of Alabama, where approximately 18 percent of the 14,000 undergraduates are part of the Greek system, has tried to deal with these issues. According to Hank Lazer, assistant vice president for undergraduate programs and a member of the Diversity Task Force, Greek integration was raised in the faculty senate 15 years ago and caused a very heated discussion.

But the Alabama of 1998 --- not just the flagship university but the whole state --- is trying to demonstrate how progressive it is becoming. Gov. Fob James, a school-prayer advocate who once ridiculed an opponent's support of teaching evolution by imitating an ape, lost to Democrat Siegelman and his pro-lottery platform; citizens in this very Baptist state have shrugged at gambling as long as revenues from it are used for education. African-American voters in Alabama are making their power felt by turning out in huge numbers. And Birmingham, best known for being the scene of some of the South's worst racist violence, recently hosted a conference called "Unfinished Business" at the Civil Rights Institute, with a rainbow slate of speakers including writer John Egerton; the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a civil rights campaigner; Bill Lann Lee, assistant attorney general for civil rights; and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). One conference-goer remarked that the opening session in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, tragically famous for the 1963 bombing that killed four little girls, was the "most integrated spot in America."

This is not the old Alabama of fire hoses and truncheons. Jim Crow is gone, and even George Wallace repented his "Segregation forever!" battle cry before he died in September. And Sorensen wants to ensure that the state's oldest university is no longer the bastion of division and privilege it once was. Nonetheless Sorensen, formerly provost at the University of Florida, another institution with a huge and powerful Greek system, has reassured the Greek brothers and sisters of all colors that he will not force the issue, saying, "I do not intend to mandate integration within the Greek system on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or gender."

This is just as well, since none of the students, black or white, seems to want it. Cedric Rembert, a chemical engineering major from Demopolis, Ala., and president of Pan-Greek, says he has no problem with the diversity task force. "It's certainly worth doing. Maybe some progress will come of it, and the University of Alabama will be the model for other places." However, Rembert, a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity, doesn't support compelling Greeks, black or white, to change their customs. "Opportunity to join is one thing," he says, "but no one should be forced to be in any one group."

The "separate-but-equal" system clearly leaves a bad taste for the administration, given the University of Alabama's history. In 1957, a young African-American woman named Autherine Lucy tried to attend the university's then all-white classes, only to be hounded by screaming racist mobs. In the 1960s, Wallace used the university as a focal point for segregation. In the early 1990s, a black homecoming queen was booed by white fraternity members, and a couple of white sorority members made The New York Times when they went in blackface and Afro wigs to a "Who Rides the Bus?" social.

"We have this history, and we are trying to respond positively," says Lazer. "The races are so separate in the Greek system. All we are trying to do is provide for greater opportunity, not demand a foregone outcome."

History is important, not just the history of the university but also the different histories of traditionally African-American and traditionally white Greek organizations. "Black fraternities came into being to offer mutual support in a time of isolation, segregation and lynching. Blacks were trying to lift each other up," says Herman Mason of Atlanta, a graduate of Morris Brown College and author of several books on his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha.

Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest black fraternity, was founded at Cornell in 1906 (the first black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, was founded at Howard in 1908) and like most black fraternities, according to Mason, takes much of its ritual and symbols from African-American history. "Fraternities and sororities ought to stick to their traditions. These are private organizations, each with a unique past," says Mason. "I shudder to think that there would be a mandate to integrate."

Joycelyn Carr, a graduate student in English at the University of Alabama and member of Delta Sigma Theta, says, "I totally disagree with pushing for integration. One principle of all Greek organizations is that you are free to choose the people you admit as members. Not every woman --- regardless of race --- is Delta material."

Freedom of association is cited by blacks and white Greeks as a reason to leave well enough alone. Alabama's Interfraternity Council President Frank Lassiter worries that universities might decide that fraternities must admit women and sororities admit men.

Diversity Task Force members insist there will be no quotas. Brown says he realizes they are struggling against many years of ingrained cultural attitudes in the South --- even in the nation as a whole. But, he points out, "the real world, the business world, is not all black or all white."

It may not be that Alabama can "lay down the burden of race," as Lewis of Georgia recommended at the "Unfinished Business" conference --- at least not immediately. "All we want," says Brown, "is to get our students to appreciate the diverse nature of our society. And the University of Alabama can become a leader in that."

Diane Roberts is the author of "Faulkner and Southern Womanhood." She teaches English at the University of Alabama and is a commentator for National Public Radio.