PR Makes a Stand in the Schoolhouse Door

The University of Alabama (UA) in Tuscaloosa paid homage to alumni Autherine Lucy Foster, James Hood and the late Vivian Malone by hosting an event recognizing the three individuals for their contributions to the school.

On June 11, 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway of UA’s Foster Auditorium to prevent the enrollment of two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood. Famous for his 1963 inauguration speech, in which he advocated for “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” Wallace posed strict opposition to enrolling Malone and Hood. His opposition, however, was a failed attempt as the students were ultimately allowed to enroll at the University. Even with all of the controversy surrounding their acceptance, Malone and Hood were not the first black students to enroll at UA. Autherine Lucy Foster was accepted and spent three days at the University in 1956. After threats, attacks and mob violence, UA officials told Foster they could not protect her, and she was eventually expelled.

How is the recognition of this event and these students a strategic public relations move for the University? The math is pretty simple. A predominately white university with a history of segregation + a significant tribute to three iconic black students = a milestone in acceptance and diversity. Instead of seeking to hide its dark past, UA used a transparent method of communication and highlighted the problems with its past by honoring the progression of its present.

In early 2010, UA administration tossed and turned about what to do with the famous Foster Auditorium. The building certainly reached its peak; literally falling apart, Foster Auditorium desperately needed renovation. UA administrators sought student input. They held several meetings and invited students to cast their votes and share their opinions about remodeling decisions. This provides another great example of strategic PR; two-way communication is key in engaging an audience, and UA allowing student input was the perfect model.

Now, almost one year later, UA not only remodeled the building while still preserving historic remnants but also held a day-long event in honor of the three students. On Nov. 3, 2010, Foster, Hood and a family member of Malone participated in a panel discussion regarding racial discrimination and injustice at predominantly white universities. Following the panel discussion, UA honored the three at a private luncheon. The climax of the day-long celebration was the dedication of the newly modeled Malone-Hood Plaza and Lucy Clock Tower at Foster Auditorium. UA’s president, Dr. Robert E. Witt, welcomed the three icons and shared his gratitude of their presence on campus. Representatives from the Student Government Association and Black Student Union were also a part of the program.

Today, UA is the No. 2 public flagship university in the nation in the enrollment of African-American students, who represented more than 12 percent of the student body in the fall semester of 2010. Within the past two decades, UA increased African-American undergraduate enrollment by almost 70 percent.

With the recent release of these stats, UA’s dedication couldn’t have come at a better time. In addition to honoring the students, the dedication served as a strategic PR move to help polish UA’s image and alleviate the stigma attached to Wallace’s Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.

Do you think this helped mend UA’s historic reputation?

By Miah Evans

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