Jim McDermott

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (May 1954), racial tensions in Alabama heightened considerably. When in February 1956 Autherine Lucy, a black student, began attending class at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, white students and community members burned crosses, attacked local African-Americans and threw eggs and gravel at Lucy herself, screaming “lynch the n—” and “hit the n—whore.” In the wake of those events, in Mobile and elsewhere communities formed White Citizens’ Councils. By the following fall, The Mobile Press was publishing editorials with titles like “Scientist Finds Negroes Below Whites in Capacity to Learn” and “There Is Nothing Good About School Integration.” Incidents of harassment sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan, including cross burnings, had increased dramatically. One candidate for city council found his front door riddled with bullets.

 

1956-57: Conflicts and the Klan

As K.K.K. activity rose in Mobile, Albert Foley, S.J., a professor of sociology at Spring Hill College (known even to some of his allies as “the fanatic” for the single-minded, sometimes imprudent zeal with which he pursued his goals), encouraged students to infiltrate White Citizens’ Council meetings and report back on those events for class credit. He paid others to go to Klan meetings and take down license-plate numbers. When some students complained that they feared for their lives, Foley told them, according to the college historian, Christopher Viscardi, S.J., “The best thing that could happen is if they’d make us martyrs.”

With student help Foley conducted a survey of 600 Mobile residents about their feelings toward the Klan. Of those surveyed, 84 percent “considered the Klan a more or less grave threat to the well-being and peace of the community.” And while African-Americans held slightly stronger views on the matter, eight out of 10 whites surveyed “registered concern about the Klan’s threat to peace, law and order.” Overall, 86 percent of the 600 residents surveyed “advocated Federal intervention.”

Once the results were published in October 1956, the Klan’s imperial wizard, E. C. Barnard, publicly denounced Foley. A cross was burned in town, and Klan agents were seen hiding in trees just outside the campus monitoring Foley’s movements. The college’s president, Andrew Smith, S.J., and Archbishop Thomas J. Toolen of Mobile asked Foley to back off, but still he persisted, drafting a law that would have made it illegal for Klan members to work in law enforcement (many Klan members were, in fact, police officers) and bringing speakers for a campus workshop on race. After a bomb went off in the yard of an African-American family on Jan. 8, Foley placed a full-page advertisement in The Mobile Register calling for a curb on harassment by the K.K.K.

The Klan retaliated. Late in the evening of Jan. 21, 1957, a dozen Klan cars drove onto Spring Hill’s campus, their headlights out so as to avoid drawing attention. At Mobile Hall, a campus dormitory, these men set up a cross soaked in kerosene. At first their actions went unnoticed. Given the late hour, they probably would have remained so, despite the noise they made hammering the cross into the ground, but students were up late studying for finals. Seeing the Klansmen, one student is said to have shouted to his roommate, “The goddamn rednecks are here, the Klan is here!” Soon the whole dormitory population was pouring out the front doors, so many and so fast that they scared the Klan members off before the men could ignite their cross.

Later that night, four students went to the gunshop owned by the Klan’s Grand Dragon and threw a brick through the window. They returned to campus and called him at home. Gerard Rubin, a student at the time, remembers: “At 2:30 in the morning I called him up and I said, ‘You got a surprise in your store tomorrow, and if you guys come back to our campus anymore, you’ll have it worse.’” On the next evening Klan members burned a cross outside the gates of the college. Again they fled before students could arrive, leaving the burning cross behind; the next morning, some freshmen hung an effigy of a Klan member at the college gate with the sign, “KKKers are CHICKEN.” A photograph of the effigy appeared on the front page of The Mobile Press the following day and was picked up by Time magazine.

Commenting on these events, Foley, who had been out of town, told America (2/9/57) that “the apathy of the citizenry and the cowed spirit of community figures serve to create a vacuum” that allowed the Klan to continue. Smith, who had also been away, took a more pastoral approach: America reported that Smith “said he hoped that a closer study of the ‘divine meaning of the symbol which they sought to profane by burning’ would ‘…cause some to change their ways and cease to promote hatred and terror among people supposed to live together in peace and harmony bought for them by the One who died on the Cross.’”

Changes of Heart

In the wake of the incident with the Klan, some students reported feeling safer at the school. In the years that followed, however, black student enrollment steadily decreased. Although the reasons are hard to determine, the attention that Spring Hill had drawn, new school rules that limited black students’ involvement to on-campus activities, scholarships offered by the state of Alabama to black students who chose to attend all-black colleges and overall tension in the state all likely played a part. The genius of Smith’s approach had been to do the right thing without drawing attention or fanning flames. In the wake of Brown and integration, that was nearly impossible; black attendance at a college in the Deep South had become a very public and undeniably political act.

The school itself struggled with social backlash. In 1957 John Tweed, the newly hired director of the college fund-raising campaign, indicated that the school’s perceived position on race would make the campaign difficult to launch. “At the present time we’d be inviting an issue about integration,” the consultors’ minutes reported, “and probable failure to raise funds.” A month later these concerns seem to have been smoothed out, and the campaign went forward. But one of the stated duties of the steering committee that planned the drive’s major event—an “all-star show” led by Bob Hope—remained “protection of the show from non-Spring Hill College invaders.” In 1958, Smith denied a request by the dean of students, Hilton Rivet, S.J., to hold on campus a regional conference on racial tension in the South, after considering with the consultors “the effects on public relations with the current [fund] drive and the possibility of widespread publicity from such a conference at this time.”

The K.K.K.’s intrusion onto campus also changed the perspective of white students at the school. As Daniel Atkinson, an alumnus, later put it, “This racial and religious bigotry made me realize how important the Jesuit decision was to integrate our college, and that at all times our moral responsibility transcends our past culture.” The students kept the Klan’s cross as a trophy, featuring it in the 1957 yearbook. In the weeks that followed those events, students with cars, led by George Bergen, S.J., the academic dean, stood guard near the entrance to the campus. Their goal was not to keep the Klansmen out, but to trap them inside. In an interview with the historian Charles S. Padgett, who wrote his dissertation on the integration of Spring Hill College, Brian Daly, ’57, recalled: “I thought they were going to get together with us and say, ‘Calm down, guys’…. Instead they said…‘If the K.K.K. comes back, we want to hold them on campus and force the hand of the Mobile police, because we think a lot of them are members of the Mobile police.”

In the years to come, student sensibilities about integration would outstrip those of the school’s senior administrators. When in 1963 an African-American student, Curt Boddie, petitioned to live in the residence halls, the president at the time, A. William Crandell, S.J., told him bluntly, “We gave you a four-year tuition scholarship, and we thought you’d be grateful.” Crandell and his consultors had since 1960 privately debated integrating the residence halls, but they always rejected the idea for fear of the public reaction. Only the patient, persistent requests of Boddie and his white classmates pressured the school eventually to make the change a year later. Neither local nor national press covered the event, and beyond a few isolated epithets, Boddie himself encountered few problems. “Considering that it was the mid-60’s, it was like being in integration heaven,” Boddie recalled.

 

In 1941, long before he became president of Spring Hill College, Andrew Smith wrote in The Modern Schoolman, St. Louis University’s journal of philosophy, that teaching never takes place in a vacuum: “The teacher in the teaching situation is not talking merely to himself….” Rather, teaching is essentially a social act. That social context, he wrote, entails built-in restraints: the teacher must consider not only the accuracy of his own information, but the impact his words will have on his particular audience and on society as a whole. The teacher, he writes, is “by his very nature...the middleman of knowledge.” An agent in society, the teacher thus has a “twofold responsibility to truth and to good.”

In its efforts for racial integration, Spring Hill College attempted to be faithful to the truth and to the good. Donnelly called for integration and Smith made it happen, while resisting the temptation to rub it into the face of those who disagreed. In doing so Smith not only kept his school afloat, but attempted to mediate the deep tensions he recognized in society. In John LaFarge’s book The Catholic Viewpoint on Race Relations (1956), Smith is quoted speaking about his actions at Spring Hill: “We simply performed a quiet surgical operation on the current prejudices by admitting black students.”

Now, as then, our imaginations tend toward social oppositions; almost instinctively we can divide individuals and ideas into mutually exclusive camps that seek to overcome one another, leaving little or no common ground. Like Martin Luther King Jr., who called for racial justice but refused to dehumanize his opponents and oppressors, Spring Hill College showed another way.

Jim McDermott, S.J., is an associate editor of America. This is the second in a two-part series.