It was all a house of cards, but no one knew it. What seemed to be impenetrable and just “how things were” was pushed on by a few sorority girls at the University of Alabama and the structure is now cracking and beginning to fall. How far will this go? How much introspection will take place? I don’t know, but what seemed impossible a few weeks ago is now happening and, on the other side of a few girls standing up and saying that this is wrong, it seems, well, inevitable.
The Greek system of sororities and fraternities at the University of Alabama (and in other ways, at universities across the South) was shown to be institutionally racist last week when two black women were forbidden the offer to pledge after being wanted by white girls in their sororities and after being completely qualified. Older alumni forbid it on the basis that it would detrimentally affect the sororities socially and economically. They then imposed this wall of segregation on all of the sororities and none of the groups offered the girls a bid during the August Rush period. All of that came to light when sorority girls in the chapters stood up against the alumni and told what was happening to the campus newspaper, the Crimson and White. It soon became a national story. 50 years after George Wallace stood in the school house door at the University and declared that segregation would continue, we finally see one of its last vestiges come toppling down.
Time Magazine has a summary of the entire episode, including the very good news that University administration has now ordered that the sororities desegregate. Today, hundreds of students and faculty are marching on campus to oppose the racism that has been present in their midst. Change is coming. It has been too long and this should have been dealt with decades ago. But, it is coming now and that is a good thing. My hope and prayer is that this awareness and desire for change will spread to college campuses all over the South and that the remaining segregated fraternities and sororities will consider their ways and change.
It is worth exploring how this happened so we can understand the power of the word “no” as a few people stand up and say that they will not keep going along with evil. There were some girls who stood up and said that this was wrong. They recognized the evil of racism in their midst and they were grieved by it. At least one girl resigned her membership. Others spoke out. They decided that they were not going to be intimidated by the Old South and by their elders who were telling them how things had always been and how things were to remain. They wanted to tell a better story and they were able to imagine a different future. When they stood up, nothing was guaranteed. They faced opposition. They had to count the cost and consider what would happen if they were persecuted and became a social pariah. This might seem rather small when we consider real persecution and people losing their lives around the world. But, I am not comparing the girls to martyrs. I am thinking about the courage it took for a 19 or 20 year old girl immersed in a system to shake loose the chains of conformity and stand up and say “Enough!” If it was easy, it would have been done long ago.
But, this is how all change happens, isn’t it? People, immersed in and shaped in the Truth imagine a better future. They recognize that there is opposition and “giants in the land,” yet they step out anyway. They throw themselves into the fray and, with their conscience pricked, they speak. We can say that they should have done it years ago and that they never should have been involved in such a system. Perhaps. But, change wasn’t coming from the outside. It had to start within. And, what happened in the past does not diminish what is happening today.
In Alabama, if you were to talk about social elitism, separation, and racism six months ago and you brought up the Greek system at our state universities, it would be acknowledged, but only with resignation. What could be done? It was the way of things. It had always been that way. It was not every going to change. Today, that whole perspective seems ridiculous. Change was inevitable. The whole system was a house of cards and it only required a few girls to lean on it and say, “Enough!” Then, the whole thing began to topple and all of the assumptions about its permanence seem as antiquated as segregated lunch counters and water fountains and “Whites Only” signs plastered all over our state 50 years ago.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Indeed. What side of the arc on we on? What are we called to lean on? What would change with a speed that would make it seem to have been always inevitable if we would simply stand up and lean on the rotten structure?
It is worth noting that many of the girls speaking out against the institutional racism are students who have come in from outside of Alabama. Up to 40 percent of new students at Alabama are coming in from out of state. Many are surprised as to what they are finding:
This leads me to ask a question, however. Many of the sorority girls at Alabama who are from Alabama would be girls who grew up in churches with “good” families and who would consider themselves to be Christians. Are we, the churches in Alabama, confronting the lingering separation and racism in our midst? Are we modeling and teaching them as children how things should be, what the Kingdom of God looks like, and how to stand up and advocate for change when they are faced with evil? Have we truncated our gospel message to personal salvation while ignoring how Jesus changes everything? This system existed in our presence and we have sent our sons and daughters to participate in it without asking them to consider what they were a part of. I confess that I never thought about it. I really didn’t think about the extent of the separation. It was right in front of me, though. But, I just watched football.
From what I understand, this is not just an Alabama problem. It happens at universities all over the South. It might not be as institutionalized as we have seen here, but it still exists. I pray that change will begin to happen everywhere and we will judge a person by the content of their character instead of by the color of their skin. I pray that we will look at the heart instead of at the categories that the world creates. And, that chage will affect more than racism. It will affect everything. May it be, Lord, and may it happen in each of us.
I applaud the girls who stood up. I applaud the faculty and students at the University of Alabama. They cannot change the past, but they can affect the present and the future. May we all have the same awareness in our own lives and may we not be caught napping but may we “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16).