A Texas farm boy, James Earl Rudder became internationally famous as a D-Day hero. A deeply conservative man who lacked the proper academic credentials, he nevertheless ruled as president of Texas A&M when the tradition-bound school underwent sweeping reforms. Under Rudder, A&M changed its name, desegregated, admitted women for the first time, and ended the requirement that students serve in its paramilitary "Corps of Cadets." This passage describes the controversy surrounding the desegregation of A&M, the tokenism that long prevailed there, and the alienation of the earliest African American Aggies.
After decades in which it seemed nothing changed at Texas A&M, in the early 1960s convulsion almost became routine. After opening up enrollment to women for the first time and changing the name of Texas A&M, President Earl Rudder had two other missions. In September 1965, membership in the paramilitary Cadet Corps– once required of all students -- became voluntary. Rudder insisted that the Corps would survive. “ I will do all in my power to see [the Corps] strengthened and preserved . . . I want to see the Corps generate so much esprit de Corps that incoming fish are struggling to get in, instead of to get out.” In spite of this assurance, by the end of that year, Corps membership dropped 11 percent. Commanders consolidated or eliminated units without advance notice, much to the irritation of some Cadets. Tensions began to rise between Cadets and civilian students, culminating in a fight between the two groups in May 1966 in which both sides hurled rotten eggs, fruit and buckets of water.
In the 1970s, uniformed Cadets formed less than a fourth of the total student body. Campus reforms affected the Corps in paradoxical ways. “The Corps was down, but by no means out,” Dethloff wrote. “The discipline and exuberance of the Corps, which continued to maintain its own ‘student life area’ on campus, was undiminished, perhaps stronger. The group had become an even more elite and selective organization by virtue of its volunteer status, and by virtue, too, of the rising pay scales and greater attractions of the professional military life in America, which had become a more specialized, professional, volunteer organization itself.”
Perhaps because so much energy had been spent on admitting coeds, changing the school’s name, and changing the status of the Corps, racial desegregation at A&M occurred with relative quiet. As early as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared public school segregation unconstitutional, A&M’s student newspaper endorsed the decision. “In the rush of statements howling about how the rights of whites have been foully invaded, very few have even considered the Negroes, whose rights have been trampled in [a] legal hodge-podge of ‘equal facilities’ for scores of years,” a Battalion editorial declared on June 18, 1954. “The pretense of equal facilities has been used so long the people assume it so without bothering to check. Here in our community, one only has to drive past the A&M Consolidated High school, then by the Lincoln (Negro) High school. It would take a shallow-minded hypocrite to search his soul and say, ‘Yes, equal facilities.’” They are considered equal only if the other fellow has to use them.” On March 14, 1956, the Student Senate voted by a 23-7 margin for a resolution opposing segregation. By no means did every student embrace desegregation. One student senator, Doug De Cluitt, said it “would be more degrading to me to have a Negro boy chew me out than to wear lip stick all year round and walk in steam tunnels.” A student petition objected to the senate vote. The senate responded by holding a campus-wide referendum in order to accurately gauge student views on segregation. Students favored segregation by a 1,066 to 620 vote margin.
Nevertheless, the Texas A&M board ruled in 1962 that qualified males students, regardless of race, would be admitted to the school. A&M quietly admitted three African American students during the summer session when fewer students were in attendance in June 1963. Two graduate students and one undergraduate were admitted under special circumstances and were not seeking degrees. “One college official said the Negroes came into Sbisa Hall to register and practically no one gave them a second glance,” the Dallas Morning News reported June 5 1963. Leroy Sterling, one of the students, told the newspaper that he experienced no “incidents of any kind when I went to class.” A&M officials initially considered segregated housing for black students but opted instead for complete integration of black students into the Corps. Years later Sammy Williams, an African American who enrolled in 1964, told the Battalion that when he experienced rough treatment, it was hard to tell if “it was being done because of color or because I was a fish” although he added he believed that he got “extra treatment” because of his color. Two years later, Williams and his friend J.T. Reynolds became walk-ons with the football team, the first black athletes to break the school’s color barrier in that sport.
Williams, however, did not get to play a down in the Aggies’ 1967 run to the Southwest Conference Championship. It must have been lonely for Williams, who could not have missed the racial slurs and late hits white Aggies dished out to the Southwest Conference’s first great African American star, Jerry Levias, Southern Methodist University’s electric pass receiver. Levias shattered the Southwest Conference’ segregation barriers in the mid-1960s, but A&M did not recruit a black football player until Jerry Honore suited up for the Aggies in the 1970s. A&M was not alone, as the Southwest Conference, which included schools such as A&M, the University of Texas, Baylor, SMU, Texas Christian University, Texas Tech, Rice University, and the University of Arkansas remained almost exclusively white until the 1970s. The famous showdown between number one-ranked Texas and number two-ranked Arkansas the last game of the 1969 NCAA regular season featured two teams without a single African American player. It wasn’t until Emory Ballard’s recruitment drives in the mid-1970s that African Americans represented a significant part of the Aggie football team.
By the mid-1990s, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans made up 15 percent of A&M’s student body, but that figure still lagged well behind UT’s 24.5 percent figure (the percentage of Texas’ total population belonging to those groups was 39.4 percent.) Less than 3 percent of the school’s population was African American. As late as 1992, a fraternity made pledges dress up in grass skirts and wear blackface during a “jungle theme party.” An African American state representative denounced the incident, which provoked the Battalion to depict the lawmaker as a black, barking dog. A&M may have been no worse than other Texas colleges and universities edging towards integration, but as with co-education, the process began with tokenism and moved towards genuine desegregation at a glacial pace.
Through these whirlwind years of reform, Rudder sought to stay in touch with students three decades younger who grew up in a vastly different cultural context. If Rudder became a surprising agent of change in College Station, he remained at heart a deeply conservative man. In March 1966, President Lyndon Johnson dispatched Rudder and Oveta Culp Hobby, chair of the Houston Post, to tour South Vietnamese educational and economic institutions. Visiting Saigon University as well as technical and normal schools in Long Xuyen, Ban Me Thuot, Can Tho, and Dar Loc, he returned with an upbeat assessment of the American war in Southeast Asia and claimed he had heard no criticism of Premier Nguyen Coa Key’s dictatorship by South Vietnamese citizens. “The United States is making great progress in winning the war and the peace in Viet Nam,” he said on an episode of NBC’s Today Show after his return. But even at conservative A&M, not all students shared Rudder’s optimism about the war or still viewed the American government and the military with the same confidence.
Towards the end of his life, Rudder began to uncharacteristically overreact when small traces of 1960s counterculture began to appear at the A&M campus. Two short-lived, mimeographed dissident student publications, Evolution and Paranoia, appeared at A&M in 1968-1969. Both publications ridiculed the Cadet Corps and A&M militarism and took the administration to task for its less than convincing commitment to racial and gender equality.
To the writers of Evolution, racism lay at the heart of Aggie culture. “The Confederacy is not dead – it is very much alive and in good health at Texas A&M University,” a spring 1968 edition declared. “Why else would the flag most often seen on campus be the Confederate flag? . . . However, these are only the most tangible manifestations [of racism.] The subtle, or not so subtle ideological displays are even more telling. Any black athlete (a breed hardly known here) unfortunate enough to come to Kyle Field or G. Rollie White Coliseum is taunted and harassed. There is derisive talk of ‘Yankees,’ not to mention ‘hippies,’ and ‘weirdoes.’ Even the venerated female has not escaped . . . Can you deny that women are not encouraged to attend A&M?” An issue of Paranoia derided coeducation at A&M as a hoax. “You may . . . question why we have so few female students at Texas A&M. The person who can most readily answer this is General Rudder; his inaction results from his desire to please financially, politically and traditionally influential individuals.” After claiming that Rudder gave minimal notice to the state’s press of A&M’s policy changes regarding women, thereby keeping most women in the dark about coeducation at the school, the paper said, ”This situation is compounded by the administration’s refusal to provide housing for women. Congratulations, General Rudder, on your subtle, shrewd, manipulation of the situation.”
If designed to tweak a retired general’s sense of discipline and hierarchy, the criticisms in these countercultural newspapers were not entirely off-base and hardly represented a threat to campus stability. A&M, in fact stood in dramatic contrast to the student activism present at major universities across the country. At the University of Michigan in March 1965, 3,000 anti-war students held an on-campus “teach-in” against the Vietnam War participated in by students, faculty and area youths. This modeled similar student actions held at dozens of universities in the coming years. In August of 1965, several hundred University of California at Berkeley students stood on railroad tracks to stop oncoming troop trains from reaching Oakland Army base. One of the most spectacular student actions came 19 days after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in April 1968 when student activists occupied the Columbia University campus in New York to protest the university’s participation in Defense Department research and the construction of gymnasium in an African American neighborhood where a public park had been located. Students occupied five barricaded buildings for eight days before police stormed in and arrested 600 students.
At A&M, the tiny student left fell spectacularly short of revolution. In fact, as Rudder himself admitted, when one group tried to organize a chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society chapter at A&M, the meeting drew “less than five members.” (In a bizarre May 4, 1969 incident, police arrested an alleged SDS leader and two other A&M students after catching the three inside the school administration building after office hours.) When A&M students ignored a day of protests against the Vietnam War staged across the country in May 1969, the student body earned the admiring notice of conservative radio commentator Paul Harvey, who declared on May 11, “while other student bodies are rioting for peace -- Aggies are keeping the peace.”
In spite of the tepid, almost invisible traces of the New Left on the A&M campus, Rudder still felt compelled in April 1969 to warn would-be student demonstrators to stay away from the school. “They will have a hell of a fight,” Rudder said in a speech before the A&M chapter of the Future Farmers of America, “and this pot-bellied president will be in the front ranks leading it . . . We must meet their power with power if they threaten our society . . . I would use whatever force I could command to keep the educational processes at A&M continuing in an orderly fashion.” After warning away protestors, Rudder turned his anger on left-leaning professors. Asked by a member of the FFA audience about professors at A&M sporting beards, Rudder said, “The only thing I can say about that is, I think we hired the wrong professor.” He said that if he were in charge of hiring he would hire no faculty members with beards, noting that, “A Prof who wears a beard in the classroom is trying to substitute a beard for knowledge.”
Rudder had started his A&M career battling hidebound Aggie traditions in order to bring the campus into the modern world. In the process, he faced a barrage of criticism from reactionary alumni who charged him with being politically ambitious or doing nothing to stop the sinister plots of leftist professors intent on undermining A&M’s military mission. At the end of the 1960s, Rudder appeared as the defender of traditional Aggie values, standing between his wholesome student majority and an imagined mob of anarchists set on subverting campus life.
In the process, Rudder became to many in Texas and the country a white backlash hero, putting an arrogant and disrespectful youth culture back in its place. Rudder’s speech to the FFA inspired a note from A&M colleague, Engineering Chair Jack Doyle, who volunteered to stand with him should leftists arise on campus. “As the pot-bellied President’ strides into battle . . . let him look over his left shoulder to find a pot-bellied professor moving right along with him,” Doyle wrote April 4, 1969. “Though only an Aggie by adoption there is tradition here much like the one in which I was brought up. God willing it will prevail and flourish.”
Rudder’s comments provoked fulsome praise from the Dallas Morning News. “Did you hear about the Aggie who promised the sandaled set ‘a hell of a fight’ if they tried to take over A&M?’” an April 4, 1969 editorial asked. “Well, it wasn’t any Aggie joke and, if any would-be revolutionaries take him up on the promise, they’ll no doubt find it isn’t a joking matter, period . . .
There has been much complaint from the shaggy ones on other campuses that their elders do not engage in meaningful communications with them. Though the A&M president’s comment is refreshingly lacking in the ornamental clichés of the New Left, it is a remarkably meaningful communication and leaves little room for misunderstanding and confusion. Other administrators might well learn to communicate as clearly.
Such messages would fill the president’s in box the final two years of Rudder’s life. To many older, white middle class Americans threatened by the violence and chaos of uprisings in Watts in 1965, Detroit in 1967, and across the country after the King murder in 1968, and shocked by the spectacle of protest by privileged children at top universities, A&M now represented the anti-Berkeley, the anti-Columbia, a place where respect for mother, God and country still reigned supreme. Its World War II hero president, Earl Rudder, becaqme a comforting symbol of a mythic, civil, orderly past.
Perhaps this explains the hysteria that accompanied Rudder’s reaction when confronted by a group of African American students calling themselves the Afro-American Society on May 1, 1969. On that same day, a group of 34 black SMU students belonging to the Black League of Afro-Americans and African College Students occupied President Willis Tate’s office for five hours. They presented a list of demands, including the hiring of two black staff members to assist prospective African American students, expansion of black study courses, and provision of a building for use as a black social center.
Dr. Tate agreed to all the student demands except one calling for recruitment of 500 additional African American students for the next fall semester. SMU at that time had only 50 African American students, mostly in graduate school, out of a total of 9,500, but Tate insisted that school had the prerogative to set admissions standards. SMU Vice President Thomas E. Broce praised the students, telling the press, “It was a very constructive and healthy discussion. We feel and the students feel we have a better university for it.”
The SMU meeting stood in stark contrast with the almost simultaneous confrontation that took place at Texas A&M where 15 students identifying themselves as the Afro-American Society presented a list of eight demands to Dick Bernard, special assistant to President Rudder. ‘We have been morally maimed and mentally tormented by the pretentious atmosphere of racially tranquility set forth by racist proponents on this campus,” the student statement, in part, read.
Expressing anger at the tokenism still prevailing at A&M six years after its supposed integration, the students sought recognition of the Afro-American Society as a campus organization; the immediate hiring of a black counselor to work as liaison between black students and the administration and the right of black students to approve the counselor’s selection; investigation of recruitment policies at the still almost all-white A&M athletic department and the expansion of athletic scholarships to black athletes. “We want immediate recruitment of black athletes in all major sports or the firing of athletic director Gene Stallings,” the students said in their mimeographed statement. “If the demands are not met by the third week of September, 1969, the Afro-American Society will take appropriate action. We will meet force with force, understanding with understanding, and restraint with restraint.” A&M officials, including Rudder, offered no comment immediately after the confrontation.
Rudder later rejected the notion of students presenting demands to the university and the A&M board of directors rejected the complete list, including recognition of the Afro-American Society. “. . .[C]hange which would disrupt due academic process, change thrust upon this institution under the ugly veil of threat or demand will not be considered or tolerated,” the board said on May 5. In a May 27 letter, Rudder provisionally rejected the idea of black studies course. “As to the idea of ‘special courses on African history’ and the like, I am against them,” Rudder wrote. “Any course with academic merit which is submitted to the Coordinating Board with evidence of sufficient demand and adequate financing has no problem of meeting with approval . . . I just don’t believe that ‘special’ courses in anything which lack either academic value, sufficient demand or a college able to offer them should be included in the curriculum.”
Clearly, the tactics used by the Afro-American Society were clumsy and making “demands” of a former general running a conservative, hierarchy-driven institution was unlikely to produce a positive response. Furthermore, the promise of these 15 students to meet “force with force” was a bit of macho bravado, meant to match, and perhaps parody, Rudder’s earlier pledge that student protestors would meet a “hell of a fight.” The reasonable requests and questions raised by the students was unfortunately lost, however, in their overheated, immature rhetoric. It was reasonable, for instance, to ask why so little progress had been made in recruiting black students or why the A&M athletic department was supposedly still unable to find qualified African American athletes for its sports program. Today, it is also easy to see merit in establishment of an Afro-Studies program. Rudder’s presumption that “African” studies would not carry sufficient academic merit may indicate his lack of academic sophistication (he held similar suspicions about art courses) but also suggest a belief that the African American past and culture had little of value to offer the larger world. Such racist assumptions were commonplace in Western academia for the first half of the twentieth century and a serious re-appraisal of African history and culture and the black past in America was only just under way. As a product of early twentieth century Texas schools without an academic background, Rudder can be forgiven his suspicions about such courses.
His reaction, however, does not compare favorably to the more understanding responses of the still-conservative Willis Tate and the SMU administration to similar demands. If anything, the ugly racism undergirding much of the public support for Rudder after this incident underlies why Afro-American studies were sorely needed in Texas schools in the late 1960s. Some writing to Rudder expressed general concern about anarchy on American campuses and disruption of the learning environment. “I have a young boy coming up who I hope to send there in the future and I have made tentative provisions for it,” wrote Edward H. Gilchrist in a May 4 letter to the A&M administration. “But for heaven’s sake please try and not let it go down the drain like some other schools have done already. “. . . Gentlemen, please don’t give into these people [the black protestors.] We want you and need you to help steer our young people right. Put your foot down, and your best foot forward.”
Don B. Slocomb, a 1921 Aggie graduate, and in 1969 the superintendent of the Giddings Independent School District near Austin, expressed similar sentiments. “I am in favor of giving the Negro, within reason, those things that he requests in an orderly manner,” Slocomb wrote on May 5. “But, violence and threats of violence have no place on our college campuses, and I hope, Earl, that you won’t tolerate sit-ins and building takeovers! . . . I will wager that 99 percent of the present student body will back you in opposing militant blacks, militant whites, SDS’ers, and any other groups that issues demands and threatens a takeover if their demands are not met.” Jack P. Goode of Seabrook, Texas, said that Rudder “should listen to their [the protestors’] problems and take corrective actions where required . . . However, do not allow any radical group to take over and destroy A&M in the eyes of the world.”
Many other correspondents, however, were more motivated to write letters of support to Rudder because of their disgust at the sight of African Americans speaking out to white authorities. Several letter writers used the incident to express their anger that any blacks were attending A&M. “So the black students want more black history taught,” began a letter dated May 3 from Rusk, Texas.
What history? Historians have been kind to the Negroes in not discussing their lack of accomplishment as a race when not led by the white race (Negro Africa). They want you to recruit more black students, students who will not pay their own expenses and can’t learn if accepted (The average Negro can’t do satisfactory high school work.) They will do nothing but disrupt the orderly process of educating the real students.
Raymond Orr of Kerrville encouraged the use of violence to put black students back in their place:
I deeply deplore the 1954 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that ended segregation. If I had my way, there would not be a negro in a white school or college in the United States. These negroes are not in college to learn anything. They are there to create trouble and to destroy college functioning, nationwide . . . It is an old Southern saying that to give a negro an inch, he will take a mile. This is so true. Permissiveness and ignorance of the basic nature of the negro, on the part of so many softies who head up Northern and Eastern colleges, have brought about a state of anarchy everywhere. What must happen, if civilization is to survive, is to expel hundreds of these negroes, and send them to the penitentiary for 25 or more years. It would be a good thing to shoot dead all negroes caught toting guns on a campus.
Year later, one of the students participating in the Afro-American Society, Ken Lewallen, recalls the Afro-American Society receiving piles of hate mail from fellow students and the surrounding community. In spite of the inability of the group to be recognized by the campus, the society continued as an underground group for years until it evolved into a formally recognized student association. Life had been tough for African American students before the society presented its demands, and it remained tough afterwards. “A&M resisted integration as long as it could, and it did so very quietly,” he said. Lewellen, who graduated from A&M in 1969 and then received a doctorate in American History from Kansas State university, learned quickly that the best way to survive as an African American on campus was to keep a low profile. “You could be a black student at A&M and pursue your educational aims unimpacted, if you were careful. All of us were very careful. We rocked the boat, but we knew when to do it, and when not to.”
Rudder, who had personally contacted African American students, including athletes, urging them to attend A&M, probably felt equally bewildered by black activism and the subsequent white racist backlash. Having grown up in a part of Texas with a small black population, where the intense Negrophobia of some East and North Texas Aggies was alien, and having served in an Army that though segregated included African American and Mexican American brothers-in-arms, and having been influenced by his friend President Johnson’s gentle transformation into a civil rights supporter during the 1960s, Rudder was probably revolted by the most intensely bigoted letters he received. He quietly reminded many correspondents in return letters that every qualified student had the right to attend A&M regardless of race. Yet black identity politics were probably incomprehensible to him, or at least represented an issue he didn’t spend much time thinking about.
Rudder probably accepted the lessons of the minimal history that he had been taught, that African Americans lacked a civilization before slavery and had undergone a slow tutelage for citizenship since. He no doubt was unaware of the racist biases in American and African historiography, or that new research was rediscovering rich African cultural traditions. Living in a mostly white world, he probably little understood the need African Americans felt to celebrate their culture and thirsted for a non-racist, thoughtful understanding of their past. Rudder’s approach to racial politics was mildly integrationist, however, not Afrocentric. In a tour of student dorms in late 1969, Rudder told students that he wanted one student body, “not one divided black, white, or any other faction.” However, African-American students, by the late 1960s, increasingly emphasized repairing the psychological damage caused by centuries of oppression and placed more emphasis on a positive identity than in simply sharing public accommodations with whites. As a result, Rudder and A&M’s African American community talked past each other as they pursued markedly different political agendas.
Politics had always been an up-and-down experience for Rudder and undoubtedly the culture wars at A&M had been tiring. The turmoil on campus had obscured what the president was undoubtedly proud of, an ambitious building program that included a $10 million Engineering Center, a 15-floor, $7.6 million oceanography-meteorology center, and an $8.5 million addition to the Memorial Student Center. In the last months of his life, work had already started on a $10 million complex that included an auditorium, a continuing education center, and a conference tower along with other construction projects including a chemistry annex and the campus’ first dormitory for women. The edifice of a great university was arising in College Station as Rudder celebrated the start of 1970, even if its intellectual foundations had only just been laid.
“Earl Rudder was constantly in the middle of it,” Dethloff wrote. “He never spared himself. He was tough, but fair. Usually congenial, he could be abrasive if he thought it would help. He held an open mind, and would act on advice contrary to his preconceived ideas when it appeared to him that such advice was better informed.”
Rudder wouldn’t live to see his mission fully accomplished. That took almost another three decades. By the late 1990s, one state magazine, Texas Monthly, called A&M the best public university in Texas, while a national magazine, U.S. News and World Report, for the first time named the school one of the 50 best in the United States. In 1997, A&M had the largest fulltime undergraduate enrollment in the country, its annual research funding was sixth nationally and it had the best freshmen retention and graduation rates. The “Aggie” joke, in which the supposed rubes who attended Texas A&M were mocked for their legendary slow-wittedness had been a staple of humor in the state, particularly at the rival University of Texas campus, for decades. Now, it was the Aggies who were telling jokes. ‘What do you call an Aggie after graduation?” one quip went. “Boss” That punch line might be the greatest achievement of Rudder’s academic career.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.