Autherine Lucy: Separate Educational Facilities are Inherently Unequal

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s emerged as a response to the unfulfilled promises of emancipation… out of the need and desire for equality and freedom for African Americans and other people of color.

Nearly one hundred years after slavery was abolished, there was widespread segregation, discrimination, disenfranchisement and racially motivated violence that permeated all personal and structural aspects of life for black people.

“Jim Crow” laws at the local and state levels barred African Americans from classrooms and bathrooms, from theaters and train cars, from juries and legislatures.

Activists worked together and used specific acts of targeted civil disobedience, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Greensboro Woolworth Sit-Ins, in order to bring about change.

Born on October 5, 1929 in Shiloh, Alabama, Autherine Lucy was the youngest of 10 brothers and sisters. Her mother Minnie Maud Hosea and her father Milton Cornelius Lucy were sharecroppers.

Autherine left Shiloh in 1947 to attend Selma University in Selma, Alabama where she earned a teaching certificate. She then attended Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1952.

On September 4, 1952, before Brown v. Board of Education case was issued, she and friend, Mollie Ann Meyers, sent their applications to the University of Alabama. They received their acceptance letter nine days later.

Realizing that Lucy and Myers were African American, on September 20, 1952, the university rescinded, stating that's they'd made a mistake and they were not welcomed.

The University of Alabama hired a private investigator to find out about their personal lives. The school discovered that Myers was pregnant when she applied for admission and was able to stop her from attending on the grounds that it was against their rules to have a baby before marriage.

Two African American civil rights lawyers, Arthur Shores and Thurgood Marshall, reached out and began working with Lucy and Myers. The case was the first to test the Supreme Court’s decree giving Federal District Court judges the authority to implement the Brown decision.

Lucy fought the situation in court with the NAACP for almost three years and won on June 29, 1955.

Federal Judge Hobart Grooms ruled that Alabama could not discriminate against Lucy and Myers. The Supreme Court upheld his order in October.

"We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Lucy enrolled as a graduate student majoring in library science on February 3, 1956, becoming the first black student at the University of Alabama.

Within days, mobs threatened her life and pelted her with rocks, eggs and rotten produce. She was suspended. Several weeks later, at the end of February, was expelled with the explanation that she had defamed the school.

“It felt somewhat like you were not really a human being. But had it not been for some at the university, my life might not have been spared at all. I did expect to find isolation. I thought I could survive that. But I did not expect it to go as far as it did. There were students behind me saying, ‘Let’s kill her! Let’s kill her!’”

In June 1963, Vivian Malone and James Hood became the first African Americans to enroll and become full-time students of the University of Alabama.

The Civil Rights Act would be signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964. The Act banned discrimination in public facilities including private companies offering public services like lunch counters, hotels and theaters; provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities and made employment discrimination illegal based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Reconstruction, the period after the American Civil War from 1865 to 1877, saw the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments establishing a legal foundation for the political equality of African Americans.

African Americans have since been afforded the right to vote, actively participate in the political process, seek employment, and use public accommodations.

Despite these advances, continue to be incarcerated at a rate greatly disproportionate to their percentage of the population. Black men are the most frequent victims of police brutality, while poverty rates among black children and families are higher than among either whites or Latinos. Many black Americans suffer from poor access to social services and from systemic inequalities in institutions like public education.

Autherine Lucy died on March 2, 2022.


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