Autherine Juanita Lucy (1929- )

Autherine Juanita Lucy, 1956
Public Domain Image

Born on October 5, 1929 in Shiloh, Alabama, Autherine Lucy was one of ten children in a family of farmers. Despite this modest background, Lucy would impact history as the first African American to integrate the University of Alabama. Lucy will also be remembered as the first black student in the history of desegregation to experience the anger of an organized mob.

Autherine Lucy attended high school at Linden Academy in Shiloh, graduating in 1947. She then attended all-black Selma University in Selma, Alabama before transferring to another black institution, Miles College in Fairfield, Alabama. In 1952, Lucy graduated from Miles College with a B.A. in English. Lucy’s next educational goal was to obtain a master’s degree in education at the University of Alabama.

Lucy’s decision to integrate the University of Alabama was met both with support and a lack thereof from within the black community. She was praised by the Reverend Martin Luther King who declared, “Thank God, there are some people who can rise above the old and broken down thoughts of their parents, who can rise above their background and heredity.” However, Lucy’s own father, who, under the duress of threats directed at him from his white neighbors, described his daughter thusly, “That girl’s grown, I raised her to know better. I always treated white people with respect. I always go to the back door.”

Lucy, along with a fellow student named Pollie Anne Myers, and with support from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) including Thurgood Marshall, who acted as one of her lawyers, engaged in a series of legal proceedings lasting from 1953 until 1955. On June 29, 1955, the NAACP received a court order which prevented the all-white University of Alabama from discriminating against applicants based on race. Although both women were legally allowed to enroll in the university, Myers was dismissed as unsuitable because she had a child out-of-wedlock before marriage. This left Lucy alone to run the gauntlet on her first day of class, February 3, 1956.

On February 6, hundreds of people descended on the university to protest Autherine Lucy’s enrollment. The mob, armed with rocks, eggs, and bricks, screamed racist epithets at Lucy and threatened her life. At one point, Lucy was hit in the back with an egg as she was ushered, under police escort, into an auditorium. Although physically separated from the mob, Lucy was still able to hear the jeers and the shouts of the crowd outside. Lucy remained in the auditorium for hours as the crowd outside taunted her.  Eventually, Lucy was escorted from the building unharmed.

That evening Lucy was suspended by University of Alabama Board of Trustees. She was later expelled “for her protection and for the protection of other students and staff members.”  Her attorneys unsuccessfully challenged the expulsion.

In April of 1988, Lucy’s expulsion was overturned. In the spring of 1992, Lucy earned a master’s degree in elementary education from the University of Alabama.