Lucy was born in Shiloh, Alabama. Her father was a sharecropper; she was the youngest child in a family of five sons and four daughters. After attending public school in Shiloh through grade ten, she attended Linden Academy in Linden, Alabama. She graduated in 1947, and went on to attend Selma University in Selma for two years, after which she studied at the historically black Miles College in Fairfield. She graduated from Miles with a BA in English in 1952.
In September 1952, she and a friend, Pollie Myers, a civil rights activist with the NAACP, applied to the University of Alabama. Lucy later said that she wanted a second undergraduate degree, not for political reasons but to get the best possible education in the state. Although the women were accepted, their admittance was rescinded when the authorities discovered they were not white. Backed by the NAACP, Lucy and Myers charged the University with racial discrimination in a court case that took almost three years to resolve. While waiting, Lucy worked as an English teacher in Carthage, Mississippi, and as a secretary at an insurance company.
On June 29, 1955, the NAACP secured a court order preventing the University from rejecting the admission applications of Lucy and Myers (who had married and was then known as Pollie Myers Hudson) based upon their race. Lucy was finally admitted to the University but it rejected Hudson on the grounds that a child she had conceived before marriage made her an unsuitable student. Even though Lucy was officially admitted, she was still barred from all dormitories and dining halls. Days later, the court amended the order to apply to all other African-American students seeking admission. At least two sources have said that the board hoped that without Hudson, the more outgoing and assured of the pair and whose idea it originally was to enroll at Alabama, Lucy's own acceptance would mean little or nothing to her, and she would voluntarily decide not to attend. But Hudson and others strongly encouraged her, and on February 3, 1956, Lucy enrolled as a graduate student in library science, becoming the first African American ever admitted to a white public school or university in the state.
Lucy attended her first class on Friday, February 3, 1956. On Monday, February 6, 1956, riots broke out on the campus and a mob of more than a thousand men pelted the car in which the Dean of Women drove Lucy between classes. Threats were made against her life and the University president's home was stoned. The police were called to secure her attendance. These riots at the University were what was, to date, the most violent, post-Brown, anti-integration demonstration. After the riots, the University suspended Lucy from school because her own safety was a concern.
Lucy and the NAACP filed contempt-of-court charges against the trustees and president of the University; against the dean of women for barring her from the dining hall and dormitories, and against four other men (none connected to the University) for participating in the riots. On February 29, the Federal Court in Birmingham ordered that Lucy be reinstated and that the University must take adequate measures to protect her. The University trustees then expelled her permanently on a hastily contrived technicality. The University used the court case as a justification for her permanent expulsion, claiming that Lucy had slandered the University and they could not have her as a student.
The NAACP, feeling that further legal action was pointless, did not contest this decision. Lucy acquiesced.
In April 1956, in Dallas, Lucy married Hugh Foster, a divinity student (and later a minister) whom she had met at Miles College. For some months afterward she was a civil rights advocate, making speeches at NAACP meetings around the country. But by the end of the year, her active involvement in the Civil Rights Movement had ceased.
President Oliver Carmichael resigned as a result of the trustees' opposition to Lucy's admission.
For the next seventeen years, Lucy and her family lived in various cities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Her notoriety made it difficult at first for her to find employment as a teacher. The Fosters moved back to Alabama in 1974, and Lucy obtained a position in the Birmingham school system.
In April 1988, Lucy's expulsion was officially annulled by the University of Alabama. She enrolled in the graduate program in Education the following year and received an M.A. degree in May 1992. In the course of the commencement ceremonies, the University of Alabama named an endowed fellowship in her honor.
In a complete reversal of spirit from when she was first admitted there, the university named an endowed scholarship in her honor and unveiled a portrait of her in the student union. The inscription reads "Her initiative and courage won the right for students of all races to attend the University. She is a sister of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority."
On November 3, 2010, the Autherine Lucy Clock Tower was dedicated in a new space honoring her, Vivian Malone, and James Hood (the Malone-Hood Plaza)—three individuals who pioneered desegregation at the University of Alabama. The Plaza is located beside Foster Auditorium, where, in 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace unsuccessfully attempted to bar Malone and Hood from registering at the University. The 40-foot-tall brick tower has a base displaying bronze plaques that chronicle the individual struggles of Lucy, Malone, and Hood. Additionally, on September 15, 2017, a special marker was erected in her honor near Graves Hall (home of the College of Education) on the UA campus.