Opinions

Fifty Years Later, Challenges Remain: Remembering Furman’s Struggle Over Desegregation

By: Brian Neuman ‘13, Researcher for 50th Anniversary Commemoration Committee

Jan. 29, 1965 Joseph Vaughn became Furman’s first African-American undergraduate student. Administrators later remembered Vaughn’s enrollment as their proudest achievement, and reflecting on desegregation fifty years later, there is much we can celebrate about Furman’s story. In the early 1960s, hundreds of students and professors wrote letters, cast ballots, and gave speeches in support of desegregation. Finally, Oct. 8, 1963, Furman became the first private university in South Carolina to pass a non-discriminatory admissions policy. Furman agreed to wait a year while the Baptist Convention studied the issue, but when, in 1964, the Convention “recommended” that Furman remain segregated, the trustees defied that recommendation and opened admission to “all qualified applicants.” Vaughn enrolled the following month, and in his own words students accepted him as “just another regular guy.”

It would be easy, therefore, to simply celebrate Furman’s successes, but doing so would ignore the complexities of the past and the challenges of the present. For years, the university was deeply divided over desegregation. Though liberal editors used The Furman Hornet (now The Furman Paladin) to call for desegregation as early as 1954, their convictions remained unpopular; in a 1957 opinion poll, almost sixty-three percent of students voted for “absolutely no integration at Furman.” Administrators were just as reluctant. In 1953, they outlined a strategy that would enable the university to “operate on a discriminatory basis for years to come,” and two years later a faculty committee chaired by the Dean confiscated all 1500 copies of the student magazine The Echo for supporting desegregation. In 1961, when a poll revealed that students narrowly supported desegregation, the university’s alumni president assured critics that “as long as the present trustees and administrators are in control of Furman, we need have no fear of that University’s going against our Southern traditions.”

As federal pressure for desegregation mounted, however, the university was forced to respond. As one trustee explained, desegregation was “not in agreement with our training and thinking, but nevertheless these decisions have been forced on states and institutions by the power of the federal government.” Though they voted to consider “all qualified applicants,” their level of commitment to the policy was made clear by their willingness to delay and disregard it. They voted to delay the policy in May 1964, and that December they were prepared to do so once again until Vice President Francis Bonner demonstrated that desegregation was an academic and economic necessity. If Furman remained segregated, he said, it could lose its accreditation, almost twenty percent of its faculty, and the federal and corporate funding upon which it depended. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 denied federal funding to any institution that discriminated on the basis of race, and Furman was therefore in danger of losing over $2 million in loans and grants. Bonner believed Furman “could not recover from this calamity within two decades.” His practical arguments carried the day, and the trustees voted to reaffirm their open admissions policy. Many at Furman understood that segregation was unjust, immoral, and (as the faculty unanimously proclaimed) “incompatible with basic Christian principles.” Ultimately, however, Furman’s desegregation was more about practical acceptance than principled statements; as The Greenville News recognized at the time, Furman “did the right thing, if for no other reason than the fact that…it was just about the only thing it could do.”

In many ways, this reality reflects the experience of the entire South. Fifty years later, we think of civil rights as a finished, historical movement. We acknowledge the tragedy of segregation while placing it safely in the past, celebrating the Civil Rights Movement as the triumph of principle over prejudice and the actualization of the American ideals of justice and equality. Ironically, however, celebrating the successes of the Civil Rights Movement while ignoring that movement’s unfinished legacy enables us to unfairly delegitimize the protests of the present and the continuing cries for justice.

We should celebrate everything that was achieved fifty years ago, but we cannot pretend that those achievements alone entirely overturned the entrenched inequality of three centuries of structural injustice. The challenges of today are perhaps less tangible, but they are no less significant. In meeting those challenges, we must look to the past for perspective, but we must accept that past in all its complexity if we hope to truly move beyond it. We cannot reduce our history to a comfortable narrative of triumph, because doing so ignores everything that that triumph left undone. So, we must remember the hundreds of men and women who spoke so eloquently and believed so forcefully in justice, but we must not forget the men and women who fought so bitterly to defend their “Southern traditions.” We must remember the beauty and promise of our ideals, but we must not forget the ways we are still working to achieve those ideals. We must remember the passion and principles that made the victory of Jan. 29, 1965 possible, but we must not forget the reluctance and resistance that made that victory necessary.

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