Commentary: SDT’s torch shines bright at Bama

Over the past year, we have done numerous stories tied to 50th anniversaries of Civil Rights events, and how the events affected the Jewish community here at the time.

In the December issue, we have a modern-day story involving a historically-Jewish institution in the civil rights arena.

Not long after the University of Alabama marked 50 years since Governor George Wallace’s “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” a bit of political theater to defy integration, the Alabama student newspaper had an expose tailor-made for “we still have a long way to go” speeches.

The Crimson White noted that the historically white sororities had admitted just one black member, many years ago, and black women attending the formal rush process had their possible bids spiked, generally from alumni pressure.

This being Alabama, the story instantly became national and international news.

Alabama’s historically Jewish sorority, Sigma Delta Tau, has not participated in the formal rush process. In the midst of the media frenzy there were a couple of brief mentions of SDT, noting that they had a few black members. But with the intense debate swirling around the sorority system, the chapter kept quiet, for reasons mentioned in our current article.

Just four days after the expose in the Crimson White, the national media were in Birmingham for the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, when Klansmen killed four girls that Sunday morning in 1963.

I was honored to be part of a delegation of about two dozen members of the Jewish community, invited to the Sunday morning worship service (the public commemoration was later that afternoon).

Reverend Jesse Jackson was in attendance, and though he was not one of the scheduled speakers, he was invited to make a few remarks. He commented that it was great to see blacks and whites together the previous day, representing Alabama on the football field against Texas A&M. But come Monday, he noted, there would still be no blacks at Alabama’s white sororities.

After the service, a lot of people were milling around, taking in the day’s significance. Rev. Jackson was hanging around, greeting people and posing for numerous photos.

Our paths happened to cross, so I said to him, “Rev. Jackson, there is one historically white sorority at Alabama that regularly has black members.” He raised an eyebrow; that got his attention.

If I said “Sigma Delta Tau,” that might not mean much to him, but given his somewhat-checkered past with our community I decided to continue by saying “It’s the Jewish one.”

He broke into a big grin, gave me a pat on the back and said “God bless you.”

While a few of the sororities at Alabama are now celebrating having their first black members in the aftermath of this fall’s controversy, SDT went ahead and elected one of their black members, Hannah Patterson, as president in early November.

The only statement the chapter was making was that this member was the best one to lead their chapter forward as they continue their rebuilding process. Patterson said it really didn’t occur to her that this would be a historic election or that there would be this much media attention (though this got a tiny fraction compared to the coverage of the original controversy).

In an ideal world, this election would have been no big deal. Perhaps any other year, that would have been the case. But coming on the heels of the Crimson White’s story, Patterson’s election took on an added significance.

In fitting with the charge that we are to be a light unto the nations, SDT’s symbol is the torch. As the Rho chapter continues its resurgence, may it continue, in its own quiet way, to be a beacon of light at Alabama.

— Larry Brook, editor