The College Social Fraternity Antidiscrimination Debate, 1945-1949

By James, Anthony W. | The Historian, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The College Social Fraternity Antidiscrimination Debate, 1945-1949

James, Anthony W., The Historian

College enrollment in the United States skyrocketed at the end of World War II. This tremendous student growth resulted in part from the GI bill, which afforded servicemen of all races and economic classes new opportunities for collegiate education. Although discriminatory quotas traditionally guided collegiate admissions, many northern institutions removed or rewrote racial and religious quotas to allow minority students greater access to higher education and the social milieu that accompanied college life.(1) While the incorporation of racial and religious minorities into the extracurricular life of American campuses guaranteed fundamental civil rights, it also challenged accepted patterns of interpersonal relationships. Integrated dining, dancing, and other social relations were perceived as threatening to many whites, who feared even greater intimacy, including intermarriage, might result.(2) In addition, some whites connected antidiscriminatory activity with communism and feared the undermining of the democratic process.(3)

From 1945 to 1949, fraternity life became one testing ground for how blacks, whites, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews would relate on the postwar campus. College social fraternities that restricted membership to white Protestants received increased scrutiny from a number of students who found fraternity life undemocratic. In the Northeastern United States and isolated pockets of the Midwest and on the West Coast, a small number of fraternity members, working locally or through their national fraternal organizations, attempted to remove discriminatory clauses in greek-letter societies. While they were moderately successful, their achievements were limited, as the splintering of national electoral politics, the rise of anticommunist hysteria, and regional attitudes toward race hindered early desegregation efforts.

Most college social fraternities were formed when higher education catered predominantly to white Protestant men. Fraternities served as a social and cultural respite for undergraduates, an experience that provided friendships and meeting places away from the watchful eyes of moralistic administrators. By the early twentieth century, many social fraternities adopted written clauses that specifically required whiteness and Christian affiliation for membership. Fraternities that lacked these clauses followed gentlemen's agreements to maintain identical restrictions. Partially in reaction to exclusion from white Protestant clubs, Jews and African Americans formed their own fraternities.(4) These organizations nurtured community, self-respect, and a cohesive cultural unity for students on campuses where they were greatly outnumbered by their WASP peers.

Two types of social fraternities existed on college campuses--an affiliate or chapter of a national fraternity, or a local fraternity with no ties or allegiance beyond the campus membership. Local fraternities only needed the approval of their membership to make constitutional changes or to deviate from prior practices. Chapters of national fraternities remained tied to the rules and procedure established by the national office and the various delegates who represented individual chapters at yearly conventions.

Fraternity brothers and outsiders faced a dizzying maze of administrative red tape when they tried to remove discriminatory clauses, as the complicated interconnections of fraternity obligation intentionally slowed the potentially impertinent decisions of young men. Alumni members, who ran the national fraternity offices and exercised great voting power at yearly conventions, controlled fraternity policy decisions. To further complicate matters on college campuses, interfraternity councils, student governments, student religious groups, and administrators all exerted some form of influence on the question of fraternity discriminatory clauses and their potential removal.

In addition, many traditionally white Protestant fraternities joined together nationally in an interfraternity alliance, the National InterFraternity Conference (NIC). …

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