If it had happened at any other institution but the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, the decision might not have raised eyebrows. But this is, after all, the campus where George Wallace made his famous “stand in the schoolhouse door,” blocking the entry of the university's first black student in 1963, and racial sensitivities still lie just below the surface.
So it is probably not surprising that tensions flared late last week when the administration decided to separate the university's homecoming concert into two locations, allowing the country singer Neal McCoy to take the stage on the main campus quad while relocating a hip-hop act, the Ying Yang Twins, to a recreational field a 10-minute walk away.
Administrators involved in the decision did not return phone calls for comment, but the director of public affairs, Deborah Lane, said that officials chose to move the Ying Yang Twins to the recreational field because of concerns the quad would be overcrowded. “It was a logistical decision,” she said.
The decision to separate the homecoming acts upset many students, some of whom complained that the move ran counter to Alabama's efforts to create an inclusive environment for students.
The student newspaper, The Crimson White, ran a strongly worded editorial challenging the administration’s explanation for separating the two concerts. “Whether it was intentional or not, moving the Ying Yang Twins segregated a portion of the campus from the main Homecoming activities, and an even worse public image has been created.”
Many students questioned whether the university's official rationale really explained its decision, which they attributed more to a fear that the hip-hop group would offend the many alumni who visit the campus for homecoming.
A group of officers of black Greek organizations said in a letter in the student paper that it did not believe the venue change was an act of racism. "However, having to rely on the limited explanation provided, our conclusion is that your decision may have been based more on cultural differences between students and certain influential alumni.”
One person who was in the room while officials were discussing the homecoming event disputed the administration's official reason for the move. While overcrowding on the quad was a concern, the administrators were also worried “about the appropriateness of a hip-hop act at a family function,” said the source, who asked not to be identified. “The quad is mostly a family event and some people were worried, even though the act was contracted for a ‘clean’ performance.”
Brett Harmon, president of University Programs, the student group that booked both musical acts, said that the Ying Yang Twins had signed a contract to deliver a show without profanities. “If they would have violated the contract, then they wouldn’t have gotten paid,” he said.
Caddell, the editor of the student newspaper, said that large events have been held before on the quad including a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in 2002. After this year's homecoming, his paper reported that campus police officers estimated that between 10,000 and 12,000 people attended the Neal McCoy show, and that the Ying Yang Twins attracted 8,000 to 10,000. Last year’s concert, which featured Collective Soul and Better Than Ezra, brought a crowd of approximately 20,000 to the quad.
“So space was not an issue at all,” Caddell said. Caddell said that he attended both concerts and while Neal McCoy attracted hardly any black students, the Ying Yang Twins attracted many white students. The Twins did change the words of their songs for the concert, but Caddell said that some fans in the audience shouted back the original four letter lyrics.
Alfred L. Brophy, a professor in the law school who has written extensively on issues of race, said that it was reasonable to have the rap concert at a separate site to allow students to enjoy their music of choice, while maintaining a family atmosphere on the quad. “I’m old enough that I could have a child who is 15 or 10,” he said. Brophy said he worried, though, that if administrators take too much grief over the decision, it may cause them to be even more cautious in the future. “I hope it will be a positive thing, and not ‘Let’s just not have rap concerts,’ ” he said.
The controversy clearly makes Alabama officials uncomfortable. When told that a person in the room had said that administrators were concerned that a rap concert might not be appropriate for a family event, Lane, the spokeswoman, paused for a few seconds and repeated, “It was a logistical decision.” She then refused further comment on the issue.