Autherine Lucy: The Black Woman Whose Admission to the University of Alabama Sparked a Riot in 1956

Autherine Juanita Lucy was an American activist whose admission to the University of Alabama sparked a riot, leading to her suspension and eventual expulsion from the school in 1956.

Autherine Lucy: The Black Woman Whose Admission to the University of Alabama Sparked a Riot in 1956

Born on October 5, 1929, in Shiloh, Alabama, Autherine Lucy was the youngest of Milton Cornelius Lucy and Minnie Maud Hosea’s nine children. Her parents, sharecroppers who also engaged in blacksmithing and basket making, instilled in their children the value of education and hard work. Lucy excelled academically, and after graduating from high school, she attended Selma University, a historically black institution, and later transferred to Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1952.

Lucy’s journey to the University of Alabama began when she and a friend, Pollie Myers, decided to apply to graduate school there in 1952. Initially accepted, their admissions were rescinded once the university discovered that they were not white. Supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and specifically by Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, Lucy and Myers challenged this decision, they filed a lawsuit against the university in 1953, alleging racial discrimination, initiating a legal battle that would last nearly three years. During this period, Lucy worked as an English teacher and a secretary at an insurance company.

Autherine Lucy: The Black Woman Whose Admission to the University of Alabama Sparked a Riot in 1956

On June 29, 1955, the NAACP secured a court order preventing the University of Alabama from rejecting Lucy and Myers based on race. However, the University barred Pollie Myers on the grounds that she had conceived a child before marriage, deeming her unsuitable. The board hoped that without Myers, Lucy’s own acceptance would mean little or nothing to her, and she would voluntarily decide not to attend.

Despite these tactics, Lucy enrolled in the university’s graduate program in library science on February 3, 1956, making history as the first African American to attend a white public university in Alabama.

Autherine Lucy

Her admission, however, was met with intense hostility and resistance from segments of the student body and the wider community. From the moment she set foot on campus, she faced a barrage of racist taunts, threats, and other forms of intimidation.

Autherine Lucy: The Black Woman Whose Admission to the University of Alabama Sparked a Riot in 1956

The situation quickly escalated, culminating in a violent riot on February 6, 1956. A mob of over a thousand white students and residents converged on the campus, throwing rocks, setting off firecrackers, and chanting racial slurs. They attacked the car transporting Lucy with eggs and bricks. The university president’s home was also targeted, and death threats were made against Lucy.

The Black Woman Whose Admission to the University of Alabama Sparked a Riot in 1956

Despite the presence of law enforcement, the situation spiraled out of control, posing a severe threat to Lucy’s safety. University officials, citing concerns for her safety, suspended her. This action drew criticism and was seen by many as surrendering to the mob’s demands

The next day after Lucy was dismissed, the paper came out with this headline: ‘Things are quiet in Tuscaloosa today. There is peace on the campus of the university of Alabama.’

Autherine Lucy: The Black Woman Whose Admission to the University of Alabama Sparked a Riot in 1956

Determined to assert her rights and supported by NAACP attorneys, Lucy sued the University again, arguing that it had failed to protect her and seeking reinstatement and protection from the mobs. On February 29, 1956, a Federal Court ordered Lucy’s reinstatement and mandated that the University ensure her safety. However, rather than addressing the violence and racism that prompted her suspension, the university chose to expel her permanently on a technicality, claiming she had slandered the institution. This expulsion effectively halted her academic career at the university and highlighted the systemic resistance to desegregation.

Autherine Lucy expelled from the University of Alabama
After her expulsion, the NAACP decided not to pursue further legal action, seeing it as futile.

Despite the setback, Lucy’s courage and determination made a lasting impact. Her case helped pave the way for future desegregation efforts, serving as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.

In the years following her expulsion, Lucy and her family faced significant challenges. Her notoriety made it difficult for her to find employment as a teacher. The family moved frequently, living in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas before returning to Alabama in 1974, where Lucy secured a position in the Birmingham school system.

Decades later, the University of Alabama took steps to make amends for its past actions. In 1988, the university officially annulled Lucy’s expulsion, acknowledging the injustice she had faced. She returned to the university and completed her Master’s degree in Education in 1992, and in 2019, she was awarded an honorary doctorate. To further honor her legacy, the university established an endowed scholarship in her name and dedicated the Autherine Lucy Clock Tower in 2010 to commemorate her role in desegregation.

Autherine Lucy passed away on March 2, 2022

Autherine Lucy passed away on March 2, 2022, at the age of 92. Her legacy continues through the ongoing work of her grandniece, Nikema Williams, a U.S. Representative and chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

Uzonna Anele
Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.

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