Sigma Alpha Epsilon was born not long before the Confederacy itself, deep in the heart of Dixie. A small band of brothers founded SAE on March 9, 1856, at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
According to SAE, “Founded in a time of intense sectional feeling, Sigma Alpha Epsilon confined its growth to the Southern states.” It is the only national fraternity founded in the antebellum South.
Of fewer than 400 members when the Civil War began in 1861, 369 fought for the Confederacy and seven for the Union. Seventy-four SAE brothers died in the war.
The fraternity held its Southern heritage close. “We came up from Dixie land,” reads a ditty from an old SAE songbook.
But nearly 160 years later, another song—this one chanted by members of the frat’s University of Oklahoma chapter and containing racial slurs and lynching references—hearkens back to the land of cotton and puts a new spotlight on the group’s history.
SAE officials insist the chant that resulted in suspension of the chapter is neither a sanctioned song nor is it taught to fraternity members.
If there are any other chapters that use the song, “we need to address that with those chapters and stop it immediately to stamp out this type of behavior,” SAE spokesman Brandon Weghorst said.
The lyrics “are so hateful and spiteful that it’s embarrassing to think that Sigma Alpha Epsilon members would even know the chant or how it goes, if they’ve heard it.”
The lyrics may have been an underground thing. But the sentiment behind them could not have been foreign to some past SAE brothers.
One of SAE’s many distinguished alumni embodies part of America’s racial history.
William “Bill” Louis Dickinson (1925−2008) was the longest-serving Republican congressman in Alabama history, 28 years from 1965 to 1993, according to the “Encyclopedia of Alabama.”
He was a World War II veteran, a judge, and Democratic mayor of Opelika, Ala., from 1925 to 1936. The key to his racial story is the year he switched parties. It was 1964, after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.
Dickinson was what was once called a Dixiecrat, a segregationist Democrat, and he left the party over what many considered Johnson’s betrayal of the party. The Dixiecrats were heirs to the old Confederate Democrats, who opposed the party of Lincoln. They left their party when it embraced civil rights for African-Americans. Dickinson supported segregationist Gov. George Wallace.
Dickinson beat “14-term Democratic incumbent George M. Grant by a 25-point margin in the aftermath of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” according to the “Encyclopedia of Alabama.” He then served 14 terms with little opposition. One person opposed him: Alabama civil rights advocate Virginia Durr. She said, “In Montgomery we’ve got Bill Dickinson, probably the worst congressman in the United States,” according to the journal Southern Changes.
Though some in SAE may live up to its motto as true gentlemen, the racist part of its heritage is real.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.