Autherine Lucy & Bibb Graves: Blacks and Whites and Oh, Those Greys
Earlier this month the New York Times carried an extensive obituary on Autherine Lucy Foster, who died at 92 and who in 1956 had been the first black student to enroll at the University of Alabama.
Her matriculation went about as well as could be expected in a state where most white folks were outraged that uppity inferiors would think they had any right to attend the state university. By the third day protests had erupted, Autherine Lucy was being pelted with rocks and debris and she had to leave the campus “crouching in the back of a police car.”
I have a strong suspicion most of the protestors considered themselves good Christians and fine Americans. Definitions are such interesting things, aren’t they?
In any case, the university’s board of trustees took firm action. It suspended Autherine Lucy. At the end of February, it expelled her, saying she had defamed the university.
Hmmmm. Is it possible that if the university’s reputation was being damaged here, Autherine Lucy was maybe not the perp? Perspective is such an interesting thing, isn’t it?
The university finally did have to start integrating seven years later, thanks to one of those do-gooder government equal-rights laws, but that didn’t mean the university was about to absolve Autherine Lucy — now Autherine Lucy Foster after she married The Rev. Hugh Foster. Her expulsion wasn’t lifted until 1988, 32 years later, at which time she enrolled as a graduate student and earned a master’s degree in education.
The day she graduated in 1992 — the same day her daughter accepted a bachelor’s degree — the university placed her portrait in the Student Union, along with a plaque saying that “her initiative and courage won the right for students of all races to attend the university.”
That began the rather deliberate process by which the University of Alabama began acknowledging it was on the wrong side of history in 1956. In 2010, the university dedicated the Autherine Lucy Clock Tower. In 2019 she was awarded an honorary doctorate.
Last month, about three weeks before her death on March 2, the university announced it was naming the college of education building in her honor.
More specifically, this building was being renamed. It had previously been named for another alumnus, David Bibb Graves, a two-term governor of Alabama. Oh, and also an Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan.
That last factoid suggests this story has the right ending. Delayed, but correct. For all the discussion about “wokeness” and “cancel culture,” whose critics often see them as a self-righteous crusade to judge and convict anyone who falls below a contemporary moral standard, some cases seem compelling. In this one, the University of Alabama is choosing to honor a woman who was literally run out of town for trying to exercise her legal and human rights over someone who belonged to an organization that terrorized and killed people who tried to assert those rights. Whatever your politics, it doesn’t feel like a tough call.
History, however, is an iceberg, particularly when it comes to summarizing lives. The short version, which is almost always the most convenient, rarely captures all the nuances.
So let’s pause for a moment over David Bibb Graves.
A descendant of the first governor of Alabama, he served two terms in that office himself, 1927–1931 and 1935–1939. He died in 1942, a few days short of his 69th birthday, as he was preparing to run again.
While he held a law degree and practiced law in Montgomery, politics was his life. He had previously run for governor in 1922 and lost, a fact some historians think may have been part of the reason he soon joined the KKK.
While the Klan didn’t keep detailed public personnel records, Bibb Graves reportedly became Exalted Cyclops, or perhaps Grand Cyclops, of the Montgomery chapter. He was a transactional fellow, as politicians often are, and his standing enabled him to make the Klan, whose influence was peaking in the mid-1920s, into a foundation of the coalition by which he won the gubernatorial election of 1926.
Other parts of the coalition included the women’s movement, since he was a strong advocate of voting and other rights for women; educators, after he vowed to increase spending on schools; prohibitionists, because he was a strong “dry”; and organized labor, because he pledged to end the convict-leasing system under which businesses could rent convict labor from the state and not have to pay regular workers.
It’s a head-scratcher of a coalition by modern standards, but it worked and once in office Bibb Graves became one of the most aggressive governors in the South.
He ended convict-leasing. He promoted women into high government positions. He quadrupled the miles of paved roads in Alabama, to 20,000. He doubled the child welfare and public health budgets, pushing them above the national average.
He raised the state education budget from $10 million to $25 million, which included adding a Division of Negro Education with a black director. He supported legislation for a 225-bed hospital for blacks at Mount Vernon. He supported major improvements for the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind at Talladega.
During his second term he was among the few Southern governors who supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms and their major expansion of government programs. He criticized corporations and pushed through an unpopular state sales tax. Alongside later Alabama Gov. Jim Folsom, historians put him in the sometimes-forgotten tradition of progressivism among old-school Southern Democrats.
Graves’s progressivism stopped, however, at the door of race.
He claimed to leave the Klan in 1928, though it’s not clear if he did. It is clear that he halted state investigations into Klan violence, and made indictments of Klansmen go away.
While he had opposed the 1901 Alabama constitution that codified the disenfranchisement of blacks, he never suggested any re-enfranchisement or relaxation of segregation. As for the separate-but-equal myth, it was calculated that Alabama spent about $100 per pupil for white students and $10 per pupil for black students.
He was not in office when the infamous Scottsboro Boys case began, but he had returned to office when it had become clear that despite the verdicts of all-white juries, the black defendants had not raped a white woman. Graves commuted the sentence of one defendant from death to life in prison, but reneged on pardoning the others after they refused to say they were guilty.
These are still just snapshots from the eventful life of Governor David Bibb Graves. Collectively, they may go a little further to explaining why University of Alabama trustees initially decided last month that the education building should be only partly renamed, keeping Graves’s name and adding Autherine Lucy.
That announcement drew immediate outrage, with critics noting it would be like co-naming a building for Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant. Or Dr. Martin Luther King and Birmingham Sheriff Bull Connor.
In the big game, they were on different sides.
So the trustees reversed field and opted for Autherine Lucy alone, which is the right call.
But since few people are wholly defined by either their best or worst actions, David Bibb Graves shouldn’t be erased from history — only, like all of us, remembered and understood in his full context.