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2013 marks the 50th anniversary of many key moments in the civil rights movement. It was on April 16th, 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King wrote the letter after being arrested for violating a court order banning civil rights demonstrations. In his letter, King cited Spring Hill College in Mobile for its leadership in the civil rights movement. That’s because the school integrated in 1954, making it the first desegregated college in Alabama and one of the first to do so in the Deep South.
“Those were the only black students there at the school. And they began as soon as the integration started in 1954-1955.”
Sitting in her living room in Georgia, just a few minutes outside of Atlanta, Fannie Motley points to old photographs of the first nine black students admitted to Spring Hill College. Her picture is on the top. Motley says she was hesitant to attend Spring Hill at first, but her husband insisted.
“He said now that the integration law has passed and now that Spring Hill College has opened its doors, and we are right here, he said all you have to do to finish your last two years of college, just get in the car and ride out to Spring Hill every day.”
Motley wasn’t your typical college student. She was 29, married, and had two young sons when she transferred to Spring Hill in 1955. That was just a few months after the Jesuit University decided to integrate. In 1956, Motley would become the first African American to graduate from Spring Hill. It was an event the press was eager to cover, but Motley was fearful of the attention…
“That was right during the time of the Ku Klux Klan, my husband was pastor of the church, we were living right behind the church and my boys were in school, little bitty things,” recalls Motley. “I didn’t want to put the church in jeopardy like maybe look up and somebody would have come and burned the church down in the middle of the night.”
Afraid of what the repercussions would be, Motley called the schools president, Father Andrew Smith.
“I said because of the Ku Klux Klan and because of my husband being a minister and there’s this church there, I said I don’t want that. And he said, don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it.”
Motley says Smith tried to chase reporters away from the campus during her graduation. They came anyway, and that concerned Smith as well as Motley. The school feared a backlash and lack of donations to the private school if integration wasn’t kept low-key.
“Father Smith is famously asked by the Mobile Register if there were black students on campus and he says I assume so. But he says we don’t ask that.”
Professor Tom Ward teaches history at Spring Hill.
“And so that of course was part of the way it was going to be done in that, if it was going to be done, it could be done quietly and if you don’t make a big issue out of it, it seemed like the city was not going to make a big issue out of it.”
Ward says while Father Smith was quiet about integration, other members of the Spring Hill faculty weren’t. Sociology Professor Albert Foley was dismissed for holding interracial meetings on campus in the 1940’s. Six years later, Father Smith rehired him. Ward says Foley’s approach to integration was more aggressive, especially when it came to the Ku Klux Klan in Mobile.
“Foley wasn’t going to do things quietly,” says Ward. “He was going to be outspoken and he was going to call people out and that went against the school policy in some regards. And also putting students potentially in danger by having them go infiltrate the Klan. And when they said you know you get hurt, he said well you’ll be a martyr then. Kind of like it’s a good thing.”
Despite requests from the school leaders, Foley publicly spoke out against the Klan. He had students infiltrate Klan meetings and encouraged them to take down license plate numbers. Tension came to a head in 1957 when Klan members set up a cross soaked in kerosene in front of a men’s dormitory. Students chased the Klansmen out before they got a chance to light it. But while Foley was aggressive with civil rights and integration at Spring Hill, Ward says the Jesuit priest had a different attitude when it came to Martin Luther King’s approach to the movement.
Here’s a part of a recorded phone conversation between Foley and King. It was May 4th, 1963, just weeks after King was arrested in Birmingham…
[Foley] “And I will not take from you any of the very unchristian things you have been saying about me. I expect to be respected as a clergyman who spent 20 years of his life fighting the same cause you’re fighting. I’ve gotten ostracism; I’ve been hounded and shot at by the Ku Klux Klan too.”
[King] “Well that’s why I regret so much that you have taken the wrong road.”
[Foley] “I have not taken the wrong road. I am just differing with you on a tactic.”
Foley and King agreed that the civil rights movement was necessary, but they weren’t always on the same page. Foley believed the Birmingham March was the wrong strategy at the wrong time. King thought otherwise. The two met several times and spoke on the phone from 1955 through King’s March in Birmingham in 1963.
Fannie Motley also met King.
“When Martin left our house, I said this is a historic chair.”
Back in Georgia, Motley shows an old chair in her living room where King sat in her house in 1964. She has a sign on the back of it to remember his visit. King would not forget the Catholic University and its impact on the civil rights movement. He mentioned the college as a leader in the desegregation movement in his 1963 Letter From A Birmingham Jail. The Civil Rights Act would be signed into law in 1964, 10 years after desegregation at Spring Hill College.