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about a black city councilman's demand that $1,500 in city funds earmarked for an ad in the PGA Championship program be withdrawn because Shoal Creek excluded blacks from its membership?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."
August 12, 1990
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 teardrop...it didn't go far enough."
Teardrop or not, Louis Willie's forced admission to Shoal Creek broke barriers that extended well beyond Birmingham. Deane Beman, commissioner of the PGA Tour, which stages 118 tournaments a year but not the PGA Championship (it is run by the PGA of America), said of the upheaval in Birmingham, "Looking back, it was inevitable that racism in golf would become an issue, but we were not preparing for it. We never saw this coming. Black players never complained about their treatment at clubs, and no civil-rights groups were complaining. We weren't focused on it at all. But the Tour's position is very clear now."
Last week, the PGA Tour announced it would not hold tournaments at clubs that discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sex or national origin, threatening that "in the event a golf club indicates that its membership practices and policies are nondiscriminatory but there is information that raises a question as to such practices and policies (e.g., all-white membership), the staff is authorized to require on a case-by-case basis that as a condition of hosting an event, the applicable golf club take appropriate action to encourage minority membership."
This seemed to draw the line so sharply that any private club that continues even a hidden practice of excluding minorities cannot expect to host a PGA tournament. The policy would appear to apply even to clubs that have had an historic association with the Tour, such as the Cypress Point Golf Club on California's Monterey Peninsula. Since 1947, Cypress Point has been one of the three superb courses (the others are now Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill, both public) on which the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am (formerly the Bing Crosby) is held. But Cypress Point's membership is exclusively white, and past president William Borland said of the PGA's ultimatum: "That's a strong and difficult statement. Under the circumstances, that could make it difficult to hold the tournament at Cypress. What we do, I don't know."
Many—indeed most—other famous private clubs, including some booked for future U.S. Opens (Hazeltine '91, Baltusrol '93, Oakmont '94, Shinnecock Hills '95) and PGA Championships (Crooked Stick '91, Bellerive '92 and Aronimink '93), have no black members at this point, either. Several of them have announced their willingness to accept black members if only some who can afford it will apply. Even Augusta National seems to be abandoning the old plantation mentality. The club's crusty chairman, Hord Hardin, a former St. Louis banker and lawyer, announced last week from his Harbor Springs, Mich., summer home that his 300-member, hyperexclusive, all-white club was expecting to add a black member, the first since Bobby Jones founded the club in 1932. Hardin was not happy that many people assumed he was only reacting to the ruckus in Birmingham.
"We have been discussing it for about a year," he said. "Yes, we concluded at least a year ago that there were more black people playing golf, more black people climbing the business ladder, more climbing the scientific and educational ladders, and we realized that there were people in that group who would enjoy being with the people we have as members. I don't want to create the impression that all of our members are enthusiastic about this. Shoal Creek perhaps expedited something that we would have liked to do in our own way. The ideal way, to my mind, would have been that we would bring in a black with no announcement, just as we bring in all of our members. And then, two or three years down the road, someone would come up to me and say, 'You mean you got a black member and he's been in two years and you never told anyone?' " Hardin said invitations to new members usually go out before the club reopens in October.
One extraordinary aspect of the Shoal Creek affair is that so much seems to have changed so fast with absolutely no dictates from the courts and no major civil-rights protests to threaten the old order. Nor has there been any significant grassroots concern by the American public-black or white—over racism in American country clubs. Nor was there even the hint of a voluntary rush to equality by the golf establishment—players, commissioners or clubs in general. Everyone came too reluctantly or too late to be able to claim any credit for creating this breakthrough. So why did it happen at all?
Ironically, it was American business that created the climate for the revolution. ESPN and ABC Sports are televising this week's tournament, and as the echoes of Thompson's words spread across the tees and greens of the land, slowly but surely corporations that were expected to advertise began to reconsider. Early in July, IBM refused to buy time on ABC's Shoal Creek telecasts, saying that "supporting, even indirectly, exclusionary activities is against IBM's practices and policies." That started a stampede for the exits, and by last week five more companies had said they could not in good conscience pursue any commercial connections with Shoal Creek. Toyota "recommended" that its paid endorsers, players such as Lee Trevino, not wear the company logo during the tournament. The networks, Shoal Creek and the tournament executives watched in horror. Jim Awtrey, executive director of PGA of America, said last week, "It was disappointing to see the corporate sponsors distance themselves from us so fast. We thought it would have been nice if they had given us a little time to resolve the issue before they pulled out."
Of course, the laughable part of the situation is American businessmen's rushing to distance themselves from exclusionary clubs, when in fact the structure of racism, sexism and all-around white male chauvinism in these institutions is primarily the handiwork of—who else?—American businessmen. And it is worth noting that even though corporations were quick to run away from Shoal Creek, there were no broad directives telling executives to resign their company-subsidized memberships at clubs guilty of the same practices.
Nevertheless, business's high-profile rejection of racism in golf was gratifying. Grant Spaeth, president of the United States Golf Association, which represents 6,800 golf clubs and courses and runs the U.S. Open, said, "Corporate America fuels a big hunk of golf in the U.S. by supporting private clubs as well as sponsoring tournaments, and it was good to see them in the middle of this issue. This will have a very beneficial impact on private clubs, and I, for one, hope American business continues to be tough about it. It is a wonderful blending of profit and altruism."
Of course, one of the more bizarre aspects of all this is the great white hunt for blacks to join country clubs that was bound to ensue. Whereas a black was formerly a pariah because of his pigmentation, now he is sought out for precisely the same wrong reason. O.J. Simpson is a member of several clubs in Los Angeles, including the enlightened, multiracial Riviera Country Club, but in just the past two weeks he has been invited to become a charter member of the Sherwood Country Club, a lavish new layout with a Nicklaus course in Thousand Oaks, northwest of Los Angeles. Simpson accepted but said, "I must admit I wondered about why I was asked to join and why my name came up in a board meeting now, and then my mind went to the Shoal Creek situation. I would imagine that virtually every club in America must be having conversations about who to tap for minority membership."
But Simpson chose to look beyond opportunism and hypocrisy and view it all as a great leap forward: "I expect this whole Shoal Creek incident will be remembered someday almost like the Boston Tea Party. Ten years, 100 years from now, when we see mixed golf everywhere, we'll remember this as one of the single most important incidents in our history."
Whether Shoal Creek was indeed the start of a torrent of change in American race relations or merely a teardrop, the fact is, there has been another revolution in Alabama. And, whatever comes of it, we can always be grateful that this time it was bloodless.