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William Oscar Johnson
August 13, 1990
By admitting a black, Birmingham's Shoal Creek led a quiet revolution
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August 13, 1990

The Gates Open

By admitting a black, Birmingham's Shoal Creek led a quiet revolution

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Until last week, Birmingham had seven major country clubs, with some 6,000 members, of whom exactly two were black. Now three are black, and the world of the American country club will never be quite the same.

This hardly sounds like the stuff of social revolution, and it certainly is small change when compared with the uprisings that raged in the streets of Birmingham during the spring and summer of 1963. In those days police attacked civil-rights demonstrators with dogs and fire hoses, and occupied buildings were bombed while a shocked nation, watching TV, saw just how vicious racism could be. The summer of 1990 in Birmingham has seen another kind of revolution altogether, one that has been utterly peaceful, yet powerful enough to threaten one of this country's last bastions of white supremacy—the private golf club.

How all this came to pass is a tale that began on June 20 when Joan Mazzolini, 29, a general-assignment reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald, sat down to interview Hall Thompson, 67, in his real estate office on the grounds of Shoal Creek, a private golf club he founded in 1977. Shoal Creek's Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course is so good that it was selected as the site of the PGA Championship in 1984 and again this year. Mazzolini was working on a three-part series of stories on exclusionary practices in Birmingham private clubs. Thompson is one of Birmingham's richest men, having recently retired from his hugely successful heavy machinery business. As founder and chairman of Shoal Creek and a member at Augusta National, site of the Masters Tournament, he is an expert on exclusive clubs. During the 1½-hour interview, the reporter asked Thompson many questions. One of them was, what did he think about a black city councilman's demand that $1,500 in city funds earmarked for an ad in the PGA Championship program be withdrawn because Shoal Creek excluded blacks from its membership?

That is when Thompson uttered the unpardonable words that could make him Alabama's second-most-effective catalyst for change in race relations. Number one, of course, is Rosa Parks, the black woman who sparked the civil-rights movement when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus one day in 1955. Thompson said to Mazzolini: "Bringing up this issue will just polarize the community...but it can't pressure us.... We have the right to associate or not to associate with whomever we choose. The country club is our home and we pick and choose who we want.... I think we've said that we don't discriminate in every other area except the blacks."

Mazzolini reported this in a story on June 21 that didn't even make the front page of the Post-Herald. Nevertheless, all hell broke loose. Civil-rights groups that had never protested against Shoal Creek specifically or Birmingham's exclusionary clubs generally were suddenly outraged, demanding that the PGA Championship abandon Shoal Creek. Thompson apologized; he claimed the quotes were "taken out of context." Friends came to his defense, including Nicklaus, who is a Shoal Creek member. Nicklaus told the Associated Press, "Hall Thompson is the last thing I know in the world from being a racist person." William Blue, president of the LPGA, said, "Those of us who have met and spent time with Thompson would never call him a racist."

In Birmingham there are people who would not call him anything else. The Reverend Abraham Woods, president of the Birmingham chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said, "The impression I have always received of Mr. Thompson is that he was an out-and-out racist." According to Angus McEachran, former editor of the Post-Herald, now editor of The Pittsburgh Press, Thompson was a key member of the executive committee that fought to keep blacks out of the Birmingham Rotary Club in the early 1980s.

What has followed in the seven weeks since Thompson's ugly blunder is a remarkable mix of soul-searching and self-defense on the part of everyone involved—from golf's governing bodies to television networks to civil-rights organizations, from a handful of corporate sponsors to the countless thousands of men and women associated with clubs that have their own exclusionary practices. Thompson's remarks have opened the cellar door and let the light of day shine down on the least-well-kept secret in golf—the inescapable whiteness of the game as it now exists in the U.S.

The color of golf changed by the tiniest degree last week when the Shoal Creek club brought in as its first black member—an "honorary" member—Louis J. Willie, 66, president of the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company, a local miniconglomerate that operates two radio stations and real estate and construction companies, as well as two cemeteries. Over the years, Willie has come to be a comfortable black presence in white Birmingham organizations: He was the first black in the Kiwanis Club and the first in the Downtown Club and The Club, both dining organizations.

Though he could easily afford it, Willie doesn't have to pay the $35,000 Shoal Creek initiation fee because his membership is honorary. Meanwhile, the club is considering the application of another Birmingham black—unnamed—who would have full membership status and pay the full freight.

The black mayor of Birmingham, Richard Arrington, was the key negotiator in arranging the solution, and, at his urging, civil-rights groups said they would not demonstrate during the tournament. At least one player breathed easier. Jim Thorpe, the only black among this year's qualifiers, had said he would play at Shoal Creek in spite of demonstrations. "When they ask me to boycott...I'm going to tell them I've got a family to feed," he said. Others, however, were unhappy with the settlement. Lee Elder, the first black golfer to play in the Masters—in 1975—and now a regular on the Senior PGA Tour, said, "I felt we should go to the very end with this thing. An honorary membership doesn't mean anything." And Charlie Owens, another black Senior tour player, said, "You need a tub of water and you get a didn't go far enough."

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