On October 27 a Delta Sigma Phi member attended the fraternity's Halloween party dressed in a hooded Ku Klux Klan sheet. He and another student--both holding rifles--flanked a third student in blackface, who had a noose around his neck. A large Confederate flag provided the backdrop. At a neighboring fraternity party, Beta Theta Pi members also came in blackface, sporting exaggerated Afro wigs, and wearing the T-shirts of Omega Psi Phi, a traditionally Black fraternity.
The two white fraternities had arranged to have a professional photographer take pictures of the events, and the pictures were posted on the World Wide Web. Frat members' girlfriends also appeared in the photos, smiling and evidently enjoying themselves. Members of Omega Psi Phi discovered the pictures and reported them to the university administration.
Since then, a widespread discussion has broken out on campuses throughout the state university system, in the media, and more broadly among working people. Much of the public reaction has been to condemn the fraternity members--not the response that would have occurred a few decades ago, when such racist displays wouldn't have caused much of a stir. Today, Black students are trying to figure out why such overt racist acts are still happening, and why they continue to face big obstacles in their fight for equality, despite the gains won by the civil rights movement. The newspapers and TV reports have also quoted some white students trivializing the actions.
The immediate response of the Auburn University administration was to denounce the fraternity members' actions. Interim Auburn University president William Walker described them as "shocking and outrageous." Both fraternities have been suspended by the university and by their national offices, pending investigations. Auburn University is the largest school in the state university system, but it has the lowest percentage of Black students at only 7 percent.
The Black Student Union (BSU) at Auburn held a packed meeting on November 5. Many Black students on campus are calling on the university to severely punish the fraternities and students involved. An antiracist rally was held on the Auburn campus November 8, which drew Black and white students. Auburn Student Government Association president Brandon Riddick Seals, who is Black, told the Birmingham News that while he had considered his election a positive step for Auburn, he now questioned what progress had really been made after seeing the Halloween photos.
Threatening e-mail from KKK
A November 9 meeting of the BSU at the University of Alabama/Birmingham (UAB) drew nearly 50 students, including some who are white. In addition to protesting the Auburn events, BSU leaders wanted to make known that they had received a threatening e-mail from a Klan-minded individual.
"We're going to start a petition demanding that the UAB administration handle this threat in a prompt and serious manner, so in the future we will not have this problem," said Takara Swoopes, president of the BSU. "The BSU's purpose is to uplift Black culture with education and unity. We want to make sure that this kind of threat doesn't happen at UAB again."
The racist character of the "Greek" fraternity system has a long history in Alabama, and fits with the discrimination against Black students, faculty, and staff that is part and parcel of "higher education" in the state. Just two years ago, after a party with similar Klan costumes took place at another Auburn fraternity, members received only a mild reprimand, explained Charles Johnson of the Auburn Women's Organization.
In 1991 Black students at the University of Alabama's Tuscaloosa campus held a protest after UA's Sigma Chi chapter organized a party with the theme, "Who rides the bus?" at which members of an all-white sorority appeared as pregnant Black women. In 1992 the presence of hundreds of white students waving Confederate flags at an "Old South" parade in Auburn prompted protests by Black and white students.
In early November of this year, the first Black student was finally admitted to a previously all-white fraternity at UA, the first student to break the color line among the "Greeks" at Auburn. No traditionally all-white sorority has admitted a Black member to date.
These issues also confront students in other states. Two University of Mississippi students were recently expelled from their fraternity after an Internet photo showed one dressed as a cop holding a gun to the head of a second student, dressed in blackface. Another fraternity was suspended at the University of Louisville in Kentucky after a complaint was made that some members had dressed in blackface at a Halloween party.
Under rising pressure, the Auburn University administration suspended 15 students involved and the Auburn chapter of Beta Theta Pi has been disbanded by the fraternity's national board of trustees.
Susan LaMont is a sewing machine operator in Berry, Alabama.
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