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Autherine Lucy Foster, first black student at University of Alabama, dies at 92

Autherine Lucy had no particular desire to be a civil rights pioneer. Growing up as the youngest of 10 children in an Alabama farming family, she simply wanted to get the best education her state could offer.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from historic Black Miles College in Fairfield, Alabama, in 1952. But then, despite being a reserved, even shy person, she took a bold step: she asked to enter at his state’s flagship university. institution, the University of Alabama. And she was accepted — at least until university officials found out she was black and quickly told her a mistake had been made and she wouldn’t be welcome.

Thus began a legal struggle that culminated in 1956 — nearly two years after the Supreme Court declared segregation in public schools and colleges unconstitutional in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education – when Ms. Lucy became the first black student in Alabama.

But her quest to earn a second undergraduate degree, in library science, only lasted three days of classes in Tuscaloosa. When mobs threatened her life and pelted her with rocks, eggs and rotten produce, the university suspended her, apparently for her own safety. Several weeks later, he kicked her out.

Her case was the first to test the Supreme Court’s executive order giving Federal District Court judges the power to implement the Brown decision, and it was thrown out. But when she died Wednesday at age 92, she was remembered for her courage and dignity in the struggle that led directly to sustained integration in Alabama seven years later, in the face of the famous “stand in the schoolhouse door of Governor George C. Wallace. ” challenge.

“What is this extraordinary resource of this otherwise unfortunate country that engenders such dignity in its victims? asked New York Post columnist Murray Kempton, observing how calm Ms Lucy seemed in the face of hate.

Recalling her ordeal in Alabama 36 years earlier, Ms Lucy told The New York Times in 1992: “It was kind of like you weren’t really a human being. But if it hadn’t been for a few in college, my life might not have been spared at all. I expected to find isolation. I thought I could survive this. But I didn’t expect him to go this far. There were students behind me saying, ‘Let’s kill her! Let’s kill her!”

Autherine Juanita Lucy, who was known to family and friends by her middle name, was born on October 5, 1929, in Shiloh, Alabama, in the northeast corner of the state. She earned a two-year teaching certificate at Selma University in Alabama before completing her undergraduate studies at Miles College. A friend of Miles, Pollie Anne Myers, a civil rights activist, suggested they team up to seek entry into Alabama.

Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Arthur Shores, a black lawyer from Alabama who had experience in civil rights cases, fought a battle in federal court on behalf of women who began in 1953. (Mr. Marshall went on to become the first black associate justice of the Supreme Court, and Ms. Motley became a noted federal judge.)

Federal Judge Hobart Grooms ruled in June 1955 that Alabama could not discriminate against Ms. Lucy and Ms. Myers. The Supreme Court upheld its order in October.

The university allowed Ms. Lucy to enroll, although it barred her from dining halls and dormitories. (Pollie Anne Myers, who had a child before she married, was not allowed to enroll under the university’s moral code.)

When Mrs. Lucy arrived for her first class on February 3, 1956, the civil rights struggle centered on the Montgomery bus boycott in favor of Rosa Parks, who was arrested when she refused to give up her seat on a city bus for a white person. But Ms. Lucy attracted national coverage in her own right.

Alabama’s student government has called for law and order, but scattered protests and vandalism erupted on and near campus, led by students and outsiders, during the first two days of Mrs. Lucy’s class. On the third day, when she was hit by debris, she went to her classes but had to leave campus crouched in the back of a police cruiser.

That night, the Alabama board of directors suspended her. The NAACP defense fund filed a lawsuit claiming the university conspired with rioters to prevent his admission. There was no evidence of this, and the charge was later dropped, but the university expelled Ms Lucy at the end of February on the grounds that she had defamed him.

When Mrs. Lucy was suspended, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery in which he referenced a newspaper headline that read: ‘Things Are Quiet in Tuscaloosa today. There is peace on the campus of the University of Alabama.

“Yeah, things are quiet in Tuscaloosa,” Dr. King said. But, he added, “it was a peace that was bought at the price of allowing the mafia to reign supreme over democracy. It is the type of peace that is abhorrent.

Mrs. Lucy married Hugh Lawrence Foster, a theology student, in April 1956, and they moved to Texas. She was looking for teaching jobs, but, as she recalled, interviewers would tell her, “You were the infamous Miss Lucy, and we don’t want you to come to our school.”

She eventually taught at various schools in the South, but largely disappeared from the civil rights scene while her husband continued his Baptist ministry and they raised a family.

In the spring of 1963, Alabama admitted two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, pursuant to an order still in effect from Judge Grooms relating to the court battle of the 1950s. But they failed to enroll until after the Kennedy administration pressured Governor Wallace to step aside from his largely symbolic blocking of the entrance to the Registry Building.

The University of Alabama did not lift its ban on Autherine Lucy Foster until 1988. She enrolled shortly thereafter as a graduate student and attended commencement ceremonies in May 1992, when she earned a master’s degree in education while her daughter Grazia Foster earned a bachelor’s degree in business finance. She said she was still bitter from her treatment years earlier, but “you just refuse to spend time thinking about it.”

That day, Alabama unveiled a portrait of Ms. Foster in the student union along with a plaque stating that “her initiative and courage won students of all races the right to attend college.”

In November 2010, the university inaugurated the Autherine Lucy Clock Tower. In 2019, she received an honorary doctorate from the university. And less than three weeks before his death, the university named its college of education building in his honor. He had previously been named in honor of David Bibb Graves, former governor of Alabama and leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

University officials announced her death but did not specify where she died. Complete information about his survivors was not immediately available.

Autherine Lucy Foster had returned to Alabama in 1974 and taught at a Birmingham high school in her later years.

In June 2003, the 40th anniversary of successful integration in Alabama, Vivian Malone Jones spoke of her debt to the woman who had first fought her racial barrier.

“I was a kid when this happened, but his efforts made an indelible impression on me,” she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I figured if she could do it, I could do it.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.