The Rev. Abraham Woods of Birmingham, Ala. was misidentified Sunday. (Published 7/24/90)
BIRMINGHAM, JULY 21 -- The neatly manicured golf course at Shoal Creek Country Club lies protected behind a brick wall with a wrought-iron gate in a wealthy suburb of this southern city. The club has 525 members, none of them black.
In June, Shoal Creek's founder confirmed to a local newspaper reporter what those in high society already knew about Birmingham's most exclusive club. Not only did Shoal Creek not want blacks -- except as caddies and hired help -- it didn't like its members to bring black guests inside the gate.
"That's just not done in Birmingham, Alabama," Hall Thompson told the Post-Herald.
The bluntness of the statements swept through the city like one of Alabama's springtime flash floods, horrifying civic leaders, black and white, who have nurtured improved race relations here in the three decades since Sheriff Bull Connor turned the firehoses on civil rights protesters.
Thompson's remarks caught the attention of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which announced plans to picket the club.
Shoal Creek is hardly unique. But it has been singled out by civil rights activists because next month it hosts the nationally televised Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) championship. That, and the fact that Birmingham was the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the 1960s civil rights struggle, has put the spotlight again on a troubling national issue of discrimination at private clubs.
Private clubs in almost every major city in the country still exclude blacks, Jews or women. Ending these practices is not easy, since exclusionary policies usually are not written in club bylaws. Local governments have tried to stop exclusions by threatening to strip clubs of their liquor licenses or tax-exempt status.
Civil rights leaders say they have been too consumed with more pressing concerns to mount the kind of dogged legal battle required to open up individual clubs. Now, they say, as more blacks move upward economically, the time may be right.
"We have resolutions on these clubs dating back to the '60s, whether they are a Kiwanis Club or a private club," said Earl Shinhoster, who heads the southeast regional branch of the NAACP in Atlanta. "Golf is not one of the areas that people pay a lot of attention to. It's a class thing. We gave more deference to people carrying out their private wishes. As blacks began to move into certain circles and particularly into the business arena, it began to affect more people and it became a public issue."
In Birmingham, where roughly half the population is black and the other half is white, there are reportedly only two blacks among 6,000 members of seven area country clubs.
The PGA played at Shoal Creek in 1984 without incident, and the coming golf championship, set for Aug. 6-12, was a source of civic pride. Local boosters buzzed about the number of visitors the PGA would bring to town, the number of hotel rooms they would fill and the estimated $30 million they would spend. Even the 650 reporters from around the world expected to swoop in and cover the event were regarded as a plus.
Then Shoal Creek's founder gave his now-famous interview in which he said he would not be pressured into accepting blacks at his club. "We have the right to associate or not to associate with whomever we choose," Thompson said in the June 20 interview. "The country club is our home, and we pick and choose who we want."
As evidence of Shoal Creek's open-mindedness, Thompson added, the club was home to Jews, women, Lebanese and Italians. "I think we've said we don't discriminate in every other area except the blacks," he said.
The outcry was immediate. The Shoal Creek board of directors issued a "clarification" the day after the interview appeared, stating that the club does not restrict membership based on sex, race, creed or religion. On June 27 Thompson apologized in a public statement, saying that his comments had been "taken out of context."
PGA President Patrick J. Rielly issued a letter deploring discrimination and promised to review the PGA's site-selection policy. But the sites are already selected through 1994. Jim Awtrey, the PGA's executive director, said he's not sure what the PGA will do about those clubs, should any discriminatory practices come to light during the PGA's research.
"The courts will ultimately have to decide what private clubs can and cannot do," Awtrey said. "Our feeling is that racial discrimination will be a factor in our site selection."
Shinhoster said the NAACP was pleased to learn of the PGA's review but said the protest would go on as scheduled.
"Obviously, this gesture on part of the PGA alleviates the impact, but it is not sufficient enough to warrant no action at all," Shinhoster said. Shoal Creek's members, he added, "need to be sent a message, a very loud message."
The Rev. Abraham Davis, the Birmingham representative of the SCLC, said the protest would be canceled only if Shoal Creek would accept a black member before the tournament began -- a demand not likely to be met.
Elsewhere around Birmingham, however, outrage over the incident has been muted. Many blacks remarked that except for Thompson's interview, no one would have objected to the tournament held at a whites-only club.
The city, run by a three-term black mayor and majority black city council, even kicked in $1,500 to help sponsor the event, although Council member William Bell unsuccessfully sought to withdraw the funds.
Mayor Richard Arrington Jr. called Shoal Creek's practices an "embarrassment to the city," but wrote a column in last Sunday's Birmingham News chastising the news media for being too skeptical about Birmingham's willingness to move forward on the issue.
"Publicity had already started a process of assessment which would likely lead to the voluntary end of racial discrimination in the clubs' membership policies in the next year or so," Arrington wrote. He was unavailable to comment for this story.
Birmingham's Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs began accepting blacks in the mid-1980s. Two of Birmingham's downtown dining clubs opened their doors to black members several years ago, and many regard the PGA tournament as the needed catalyst to break down the barriers at Shoal Creek.
Last Thursday, the president of Alagasco, an Alabama natural gas consortium, announced his resignation from the whites-only Birmingham Country Club.
"We had no Jewish members. We had no black members, and there was no effort to alleviate this," he said. "Birmingham has a history it cannot ignore. We're defensive about it. Now we've got a tremendous opportunity to deal with an issue that very few cities have successfully dealt with. It could become a very positive story. Or it could become another negative and give us another black eye."