Race, Politics and Progress: Spring Hill College in the Long Sixties

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

During the Long Sixties, the world saw a universal push for social change and for better treatment towards all. In multiple countries around the world, groups that had faced second hand treatment or limited rights fought for equality and progress. One of the most pivotal progressive events during this time was the American Civil Rights Movement. Led by political and religious leaders as well as student activists, the movement focused on integration, civil rights and overall equality for Black Americans. The U.S. South was the focal point of that struggle, with Alabama being a hotbed of civil rights activity from Birmingham all the way to Mobile. Spring Hill College actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement by pioneering social change through early integration and outspoken political advocacy on voting rights and boycotts, creating a legacy of social justice for future students to uphold.

School integration was an important part of the fight for civil rights. One step forward on a national level was the Brown v. Board of Education Topeka decision in 1954, which found the “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional. Beginning in 1951, Spring Hill began to admit Black students to night classes only, three years before the Brown decision.[1] This progressive move was still just a small step forward. Allowing Black students to only attend night classes was not full integration and denied students the full college experience. This reflected the “separate but equal” logic instilled by Plessy v. Ferguson. Spring Hill began to admit Catholic students regardless of race following the Brown decision, unlike other colleges around the state.[2] This move made Spring Hill famous for leading the way in integration among southern colleges, getting recognition from Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Dr. King mentions the college “commending the Catholic leaders of the state for integrating Spring Hill.”[3]

A prominent leader of Spring Hill’s integration movement was Father Foley, a sociology professor. Foley’s position and influence at the college contributed to the positive outcomes of the early integration and overall positive response to the decision. The college’s actions were a stark contrast to the rest of the state in regards to integration. The governor of Alabama during this time, George Wallace, is infamous for standing on the front steps of a building at the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa and denying entry to two Black students. Wallace is also known for declaring "segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever" in his inaugural speech in January 1963.[4] Spring Hill’s peaceful transition from separate toward equal and recognition from such a leader as Dr. King showed that integration was possible and positive for all involved and that it was best for the future of society. It also showed that the college’s mission of social justice work and service towards others was actually put into action and taught to the students. In a global perspective, a similar fight for freedom, but on different terms was occurring in Africa. Algerians were fighting against the French for independence and Black Americans were fighting against the segregationist, white power structure.[5] Although their goals were similar, the Black community had more allies in those who were in power and citizens of other races, unlike the Algerians, which helped with their gaining of rights.

Towards the end of the Long Sixties, Black students at Spring Hill grew tired of sitting on the sidelines with full equality but limited involvement. Although there were no rules restricting them from participating in campus activities, Black students on campus felt separate because they saw themselves as different from everyone else.[6] They began to ask for a stronger voice and presence in campus activities, and not only be “students seeking an education from books alone.”[7] Actually taking part in the activities of the majority is a major part of progress and creates equality in a different sense. It enhances the students’ experience, allowing them to be a part of the change that was centered on them. Students organized a Black History Week in 1969 to increase Black student involvement and to help the students feel better about participating in general. This week was set up “to make the Spring Hill student aware of Black history and the need of the black students to become involved in the school’s curriculum.”[8] Informing their fellow classmates about their culture and history would allow the Black students to be better understood by those around them, thus making them more comfortable in branching out and joining activities.

Spring Hill students joined others around the world during the Long Sixties in strongly expressing their stance on equality. Just like their counterparts in Latin America and other parts of the United States, particularly in Berkeley, CA, the students at Spring Hill expressed their feelings about those in power on the topics of equality and civil rights, specifically pertaining to Blacks. At the beginning of the Long Sixties, Civil Rights activists participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycotts from 1955-1956, protesting the rule of Whites only in the front of the bus and Blacks only in the back, there were also other boycotts in later years. One student voice in The Springhillian held a somewhat distorted and pessimistic view of the boycotts, believing that they would end up hurting the Blacks and the economy of the state.[9] These boycotts are similar to that of a strike going on in Mexico a few years later in 1958 that called for better treatment of workers and an increase in salaries.[10] Both of these demonstrations enhance the argument that during this era, people finally began to realize that something was wrong with the way things were run and that a change needed to come. Former Alabama governor George Wallace ran for president in 1968, while firmly expressing his pro-segregation standpoint. Based on previous, positive student opinions on integration at Spring Hill, Wallace’s views were strongly denounced at the college. However, there was a small faction that supported his opinions and his candidacy for president. Student Nick Madaloni called Wallace “not a racist but a segregationist.”[11] This student’s reasoning is faulty based on the fact that racism by definition is one race feeling superior to another. The idea of segregation acts this out through not allowing the two races, one “superior” and one “inferior”, to intermingle with one another.

Voting rights was a top issue that civil rights activists worked toward. Many county registrars in the south denied Blacks the right to register to vote and multiple barriers, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, were implemented to hinder Blacks from voting. The march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 was centered on protesting these hindrances and calling for a voting rights act. Students at Spring Hill felt strongly about this and following a civil rights keynote speaker presented at the college, students wanted to know what more could they do to help the cause of voting rights.[12] Their swift jump to action plays into the bigger image the college set up when it was the first to integrate, one of a welcoming institution of higher learning and a guiding light for the rest of the country. It also shows that the students at Spring Hill were part of something bigger nationally and globally, becoming activists of doing the right thing. Students at UC Berkeley saw their freedom of speech, another civil liberty, being threatened by campus administration. In protest, they organized the Free Speech Movement in 1964 to push the college leaders lift bans on political activism, free speech, and to offer a greater diversity of courses.[13] The student activism from both colleges in different areas of the country showed just how strong the desire for change was among the students.

Today, Spring Hill finds itself with a decision to make regarding race relations. With the rising activism nationally against police brutality and racial profiling, today’s students must continue to uphold the legacy of civil rights and equality work that began during the Long Sixties. We find ourselves in the midst of a new national, student-led revolution fighting for change and students are faced with decisions to make in how to go about responding to events in cities such as Ferguson and Baltimore, and on campuses such as the University of Missouri. Apathy is out of the question. Becoming involved requires the support of most of the student body and them all being on one accord on how to act and stand in solidarity and work toward preventing any incidents on campus. We have already seen promising first steps on campus such as the start of chapters of two organizations: the Men of Color Council and the National Council of Negro Women. Both of these groups work toward raising awareness about the issues at hand and about the history of Black oppression, while working toward ways to solve the problems with the inclusion of all races working together.

Spring Hill College did not remain silent in the global movement for progress and change during the Long Sixties. Although it may not have been as prominent as others, the Spring Hill College community’s role in the Civil Rights Movement and in the greater global movement toward equality for all made major positive impacts. The precedent they set by leading the way in integration, which was at the heart of the struggle, was successful and smooth. Thanks to the college’s methods of progress, their overall transition from old to new was productive and had lasting impressions. And while there was a small minority of student opposition to the movement, the overall campus attitude was supportive of civil rights activism. This experience has left current Spring Hill students a legacy to build on and a duty to stand firm in the college’s traditions.  

[1] The Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham, spring 1963, Box 8, Folder 40. Foley Collection SHC Desegregation. Spring Hill College Archives and Special Collections, Mobile, AL.

[2] The Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham.

[3] Dr. Martin Luther King, Birmingham, AL April 16, 1963, in Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

[4] Debbie Elliot, “Wallace in the Schoolhouse Door,” NPR, http://www.npr.org/2003/06/11/1294680/wallace-in-the-schoolhouse-door (accessed November 30, 2015).

[5]The Battle of Algiers. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. (1967; Italy, Algeria: Rizzoli, Rialto Pictures, 2004.), DVD.

[6] Dell Stuardi, “Blacks on Campus Want Part of Action,” The Springhillian, October 22, 1968.

[7] Stuardi, October 22, 1968.

[8] “Black History Week a ‘Success,’” The Springhillian, February 25, 1969.

[9]“Going Too Far,” The Springhillian, April 7, 1965.

[10] Jaime Pensado, Rebel Mexico: Student Unrest and Authoritarian Political Culture During the Long Sixties (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), 37.

[11] Nick Madaloni, “Wallace?” The Springhillian, October 22, 1968.

[12] “Civil Rights are Keynoted by Two Guest Speakers,” The Springhillan, November 22, 1960.

[13] Berkeley in the Sixties. Directed by Mark Kitchell. (1990; New York City: California Newsreel and First Run Features, 2002.), DVD.