Press Control during Auburn University's Desegregation

Article excerpt

Desegregation at the universities of Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama in 1956 to 1963 was marked by both violence and considerable press attention, not only locally and regionally but nationally. Although forced to integrate in 1964, Auburn University's experience is less well known than that of its sister schools because press coverage of the event was controlled by President Ralph B. Draughon. This article helps alleviate the scarcity of research on news coverage of school desegregation by examining how the university effectively restricted the media in their ability to collect news. If some of Auburn's tactics were used today, they would be considered unconstitutional because they would: undermine a free press, censor a student newspaper, and restrict the media's access to a university, which is public property.

In the midst of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, southern colleges fiercely resisted black Americans' attempts to attain educational equality. Riots erupted when the University of Alabama, the University of Georgia, and the University of Mississippi attempted integration between 1955 and 1963. As the violence swelled, the press increased its attention. Decades later, the schools' experiences are enduring reminders of both the civil rights struggle and the South's resistance to change. Auburn University also unwillingly desegregated, but its forced integration is not associated with the violence and anger that occurred at other major southern institutions. Why is its desegregation less well known than that of other nearby schools? The answer lies, in part, in Auburn University President Ralph B. Draughon's ability to control press coverage of the event.

Segregation and the civil rights movement in the United States are well researched. General histories provide detailed information about the development and maintenance of segregation throughout the United States.1 A significant body of research focuses on the history of segregation in education, from a general perspective,2 as well as this type of segregation in specific states.3 Yet more research reveals the relationship between the news media and desegregation, both as general histories4 and specific case studies of individuals or states.5

Despite the scholarly attention being paid to the issues of educational segregation and the role of the press in desegregation, no research has focused on the relationship between press coverage of school desegregation. Images such as Alabama Governor George Wallace blocking the schoolhouse door and enraged white students screaming at black students are iconic representations of the integration of higher education, yet this aspect of United States journalistic history remains unmined. This article is a step toward understanding and explicating the relationship between press coverage and integration by focusing on the internal strategies used by Auburn University to control news coverage.6

During the Jim Crow era of the early twentieth century, the racist philosophy of segregation inevitably spread to the education system. Nearly all black students were excluded from every white southern school while a variety of financial manipulations also resulted in inadequate resources for black schools.7 The exclusionary policies were constitutionally protected under the Supreme Court's "separate but equal" doctrine established in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson,8 and this institutionalized inequality achieved its intended purpose. The lack of adequate education reverberated throughout the lives of blacks, most of whom were sentenced to poverty and disenfranchisement. For some, the lack of quality education meant that they were far less likely to meet college entrance requirements than white students.

Some black students who overcame the odds sought admission to state universities that prohibited black enrollment. Between 1938 and 1954 several federal court cases contributed significandy to the erosion of the "separate but equal" doctrine in education and revealed the changing attitudes of the Supreme Court towards segregation. …

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