RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The University of Alabama has been plunged into a conversation about race and racism. Students and community leaders are reacting to allegations that white sororities denied access to black students because of their race. Sorority members say they wanted to recruit at least two black candidates but those names were removed before members could vote on them. And that became a story in the University of Alabama's Crimson White student newspaper.

NPR's Kathy Lohr visited the campus and has more.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: One of the black women who sorority members say was pulled from consideration seemed the perfect recruit. She had a 4.3 grade point average. And she's also from an influential family; the step granddaughter of Alabama Judge John England who is a university trustee.

JUDGE JOHN ENGLAND: Race may have played a factor or may even been the reason why, though not necessarily from the young people, but from some alumni.

LOHR: Judge England says some alums may have pressured current sorority members to reject black students.

In a video statement posted Tuesday, university President Judy Bonner acknowledged sororities and fraternities remain segregated. She says chapter members admit, while recruiting new candidates a few weeks ago, decisions were made based on race.

JUDY BONNER: While we will not tell any group who they must pledge, the University of Alabama will not tolerate discrimination of any kind.

LOHR: Bonner ordered sororities to use an open bidding process, which allows them to add new members at any time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND A FOUNTAIN)

LOHR: Outside the Ferguson Center, the student union on campus, a fountain surges but only seems to add to the sticky September day. Students gather for an impromptu musical performance and hang out between classes. Erin Williams is a sophomore from Virginia Beach.

ERIN WILLIAMS: What shocks me is that a university, such as the University of Alabama, would, you know, still have this issue going on.

LOHR: Williams says the university, which once banned African-Americans, has made progress. But as the institution celebrates the 50th anniversary of its desegregation, she says it has failed to integrate the powerful Greek system, which produces many of the state's political leaders.

WILLIAMS: And you've got people from students from over 77 countries or so. I'm like all these people coming here that love this school and we can't do something as simple as integrate our Greek system. That just baffles me.

LOHR: About 35,000 students are enrolled at the University of Alabama which remains predominantly white. About 12 percent are African-American. One-fourth of the students are members of fraternities and sororities.

Taylor Coar, from Birmingham, says segregation in the Greek system has been an issue for years.

TAYLOR COAR: You know, there are some people who want to see a change but are too scared to make it - who won't step forward and say what they think. But that's what we need. We need someone to step forward and say I don't like the way this system is being run and I don't think that it's fair.

LOHR: Some at the university are bringing students together so they can talk to one another. Lane McLelland is director of the Crossroads Community Center on campus.

LANE MCLELLAND: I can't go five steps without hearing another student talk about how important this is to them.

LOHR: McLelland is teaching a new course on a process called Sustained Dialogue. It's an effort to hold conversations about difficult issues including race. The University of Alabama is among 25 college campuses that have started these groups.

Dr. Mark Nelson is vice president for Student Affairs.

DR. MARK NELSON: Our students are courageous. They are very bright. They know can be better. They're ready for change.

LOHR: Some here say it is encouraging that the story was published. That includes Judge John England. He says its important students are speaking out against intolerance.

ENGLAND: We know that there are some who still live in the '50s when segregation was the order of the day. We know there are some who still live there, but I believe that we're moving away from that. We haven't moved there yet but we're moving away from it.

LOHR: The university president says the nation is watching Alabama just as it did in the 1960s, when Then-Governor George Wallace made his stand against integration here. She says the students are ready to move forward and the university will work to remove any barriers they perceive.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Discussions about race, ethnicity and culture tend to get dicey quickly, so we hold our commenters on Code Switch to an especially high bar. We may delete comments we think might derail the conversation. If you're new to Code Switch, please read over our FAQ and NPR's Community Guidelines before commenting. We try to notify commenters individually when we remove their comments, but given that we receive a high volume of comments, we may not always be able to get in touch. If we've removed a comment you felt was a thoughtful and valuable addition to the conversation, please don't hesitate to get in touch with us by emailing codeswitch@npr.org.