THURSDAY, MARCH 3, 2022
The greatness of Autherine Lucy: Autherine Lucy Foster isn't one of the best-known names.
That said, she came from the greatest generation. She died yesterday at age 92. In the Washington Post, Harrison Smith's report begins like this:
Autherine Lucy Foster, first Black student at University of Alabama, dies at 92
Autherine Lucy Foster, who faced racist mobs and death threats as the first Black student to attend the University of Alabama, and who was suspended and ultimately expelled by a school board that was unable or unwilling to ensure her safety, died March 2 at 92.
Her death was announced by the University of Alabama and by her daughter Angela Foster Dickerson. Additional details were not immediately available.
Although she was chased from campus after only three days of classes, Ms. Foster’s 1956 enrollment at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa was a symbolic milestone in the civil rights movement, occurring at what was then an all-White citadel of the segregated South.
The Supreme Court had outlawed "separate but equal," but this was a terrible time. The past wasn't even past at that point. According to Smith's report, those three days proceeded like this:
Ms. Foster, a shy graduate student who was then known as Autherine Lucy, was pelted by rotten eggs and ultimately forced to flee campus in a highway patrol car, instructed to lie on the floor of the back seat.
Students, local residents and members of the Ku Klux Klan protested her enrollment by burning crosses and smashing cars that were driven by Black drivers, with some demonstrators chanting “Keep Bama White” and “To hell with Autherine.”
“I asked the Lord to give me the strength—if I must give my life—to give it freely,” she later recalled, according to Nora Sayre’s book “Previous Convictions.” Journalists at the time took note of her resolve, with New York Post columnist Murray Kempton writing, “What is this extraordinary resource of this otherwise unhappy country that it breeds such dignity in its victims?”
"What is this extraordinary resource of this otherwise unhappy country that it breeds such dignity in its victims?" In his assessment of Autherine Lucy, Murray Kempton had it very much right.
People like Autherine Lucy were the greatest generation. Part of their greatness lay in the fact that they didn't lord their moral greatness around—didn't seek to be better than, different.
Dr. King knew where greatness came from. "Everybody can be great," he said. "Because everybody can serve."
Murray Kempton was asking an eternal question about the greatness of Autherine Lucy. Where in the world had her dignity come from? In Smith's telling, her story continues like this:
Seven years after Ms. Foster’s departure, Black students finally returned to the University of Alabama, with Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood registering in 1963 over the opposition of Gov. George C. Wallace, who made his symbolic “stand in the schoolhouse door.”
“Autherine Lucy Foster opened that door,” former University of Alabama trustee and retired judge John H. England Jr. said last month, addressing the trustees. The school overturned Ms. Foster’s expulsion in 1988, and she soon returned to campus, receiving a master’s degree in elementary education in 1992. She was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2019 and was on campus last week to attend the dedication for an education building named in her honor.
The people who absorbed the most abuse were the ones who displayed the greatest character—the greatest devotion to task. We're also happy to note the way today's Alabama trustees have improved on the ways of the past.
The moral greatness of founding generations sometimes gets lost as conditions improve. Today, in that very same Washington Post, this astoundingly silly column appears, in which a member of the Joshua generation voices a long, ridiculous list of the world's puniest, least coherent complaints.
President Obama used to speak about "the Joshua generation"—the generation which got to move way far ahead because of the sacrifices of those who had come before them. Hollywood used to build movies around this wider theme, though all the films which come to mind involved the pampered white daughters of devoted white mothers who had worked themselves to the bone.
This greatest generation deeply, devotedly served. In this gruesome performative era, the Washington Post can't run fast enough to publish the world's dumbest complaints from some of the world's most pampered, over-privileged people.
Elsewhere in the world, children are drowning in the sea as this performative posing persists at the Post. Autherine Lucy Foster has come and has gone.
Will there be many others like this group? Or are our best days dead and gone?
The gentleman's fuller statement: Dr. King's fuller statement went like this:
KING (2/4/68): Everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve.
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.
You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.
You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.
No really, that's what Dr. King said! That generation served.