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LETTER-COLLEGE Apr-16-2013 (670 words) With LETTER-REACT posted April 15. xxxn

Spring Hill College marks school's mention in Rev. King's famed letter

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Like dozens of other schools nationwide, Jesuit-run Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., held commemorative programs surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which the civil rights leader began composing April 16, 1963.

The difference in Spring Hill's commemoration is that the college also gets to acknowledge its history, which gets a brief mention in Rev. King's famed letter. In the 21-page letter, where Rev. King strongly criticized church leaders for failing to be actively involved in ending discrimination, he commended "the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago."

Rev. King's letter was a response to local religious leaders who had urged him -- in a public letter published April 13, 1963, in a local newspaper -- to negotiate and wait for court actions instead of leading civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, which they described as "unwise and untimely."

In his response, Rev. King stressed that demonstrations, marches and nonviolent actions were absolutely necessary because those who had been unjustly treated could not wait any longer for changes to take place.

Thomas Ward Jr., history professor and chair of the history department at Spring Hill College, said the college is "very proud" to be mentioned in Rev. King's letter.

He told Catholic News Service April 15 that Spring Hill was the first desegregated college in Alabama but explained the date that it started is somewhat complicated.

Officially, the school admitted its first African-American students in 1954 when nine African-American students enrolled at the school, but even then he said the process of integration was slow because these students didn't live in the dorms at first.

Ward also pointed out that the school had "very quietly" admitted African-American nuns in its summer session in 1949 and in 1953 it admitted two African-American women as transfer students from other colleges.

Jesuit Father Patrick Donnelly, Spring Hill's president from 1946 to 1952, urged the school board from 1948 on to consider admitting African American students. In 1952, the college admitted women, which, according to Ward, was already a big step.

Jesuit Father Andrew Smith, who led the school from 1952 to 1959, had more success with desegregation but kept the decision to admit African-American students quiet.

In September 1954, a local newspaper, the Mobile Register, asked the college president if it was true that African-American students had been admitted to the college. In response, Father Smith said: "I presume there are some in the classes." He went on to explain that he "did not know how many were admitted," saying: "We have never asked them if they were white or Negro. We are not making an issue of it."

Ward noted that even the college newspaper did not report the admission of African-American students.

He said the change was "done quietly" so as not to attract any "unwanted attention."

But he also noted that not everyone at the school was quiet about integration. A sociology professor at Spring Hill College, Jesuit Father Albert Foley, publicly spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan and had students infiltrate Klan meetings. In 1957, Klan members set up a cross soaked in kerosene in front of a men's dormitory, but students chased them away.

Father Foley spoke with Rev. King and agreed with him in principle about civil rights, but like the Alabama clergymen, he disagreed with the timing and the effectiveness of Rev. King's demonstrations in Birmingham and spoke with him frequently about this.

Fannie Motley, who was a transfer student to Spring Hill and in 1956 was the school's first African-American graduate, also met Rev. King, who visited her in her home in Atlanta in 1964.

In a recent interview with Alabama Public Radio, she pointed out the chair in her living room with a sign on the back of it to remember his visit. Rev. King told her he would not forget Spring Hill College and its impact on the civil rights movement.

When he left, she told herself: "This is a historic chair."


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