A Changed Alabama Remembers '63

Gov. George Wallace blocks the entrance to the University of Alabama as he turned back a federal officer attempting to enroll two black students at the university campus in Tuscaloosa, Ala., June 11, 1963. The 43-year-old governor stands with highway patrolmen who are on duty to prevent violence. (AP Photo) AP

American politics changed 40 years ago this week at a schoolhouse door.

Five months after vowing "segregation forever" at his 1963 inaugural, Gov. George C. Wallace tried to block the admission of two black students to the all-white University of Alabama.

Wallace's defiant "stand in the schoolhouse door," failed to keep out minorities - with about 19,600 students, Alabama's student body is now 13 percent black. But it launched Wallace onto the national political scene and moved the Democratic Party firmly into the corner of civil rights.

"What happened that day did represent a tectonic shift in American politics," said Culpepper Clark, Alabama's communications dean and the author of a book on the showdown.

This week, the university will hold a three-day observance for the anniversary of Wallace's infamous stand. Honorees include the two black students who faced the governor that day - Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood.

Jones, who entered as a junior after attending a historically black college, became the first black graduate of Alabama in 1965. Hood left after a few months but returned to receive his doctorate in 1997.

Wallace, a Democratic populist at the time, became a champion of the conservative whites who later helped launch the Reagan revolution in 1980. He renounced his segregationist views before his death in 1998.

By publicly opposing Wallace, President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, helped chart their party's course for decades to come, according to Clark.

"The Kennedy administration that evening fully embraced the civil rights movement and identified the Democratic Party with that movement and all the subsequent efforts to end the effects of discrimination," Clark said.

"Wallace warned at the time that the Kennedys risked losing the solid South, and indeed they did," said Clark, who wrote "The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation's Last Stand at the University of Alabama."

This week's observance, including a speech Tuesday by Robert Kennedy Jr., is welcomed by black students, said Laborian Jones, who said he didn't know much about the events of 1963 when he enrolled at Alabama.

"I found out about it and it was like, `Man, that was something,"' said Jones, 24, of Montgomery.

Wallace's stand came during a time of racial turmoil across the South.

Rioting had broken out in 1956 when Autherine Lucy briefly became the first black to enroll at Alabama. Later, bloody fights erupted over the integration of public schools and universities in Mississippi and Arkansas.

Then a federal judge ordered Wallace to admit blacks to Alabama.

After being threatened with contempt and jail, Wallace entered into days of tense negotiations with the Kennedy administration.

Finally, with scores of state troopers on campus to keep away troublemakers, Wallace fulfilled a promise by literally standing in the doorway of Foster Auditorium to block the admission of Jones and Hood, who were accompanied by Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.

Hood said it was all just a show: He and Jones already had registered and gotten their dormitory assignments. "All we had to do was pay our fees," he said.

In front of TV cameras, Wallace decried the federal government's involvement in what he claimed was a state issue. Katzenbach's group retreated after a few minutes.

President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard, and Wallace made another stand later that day when the students returned. He finally stepped aside at the request of Guard Gen. Henry Graham, who said it was his "sad duty" to ask Wallace to move.

Hood and Malone entered the building through another door.

Wallace had made a point politically; he was elected to three more terms as governor. And no one was physically injured.

Avoiding bloodshed was a prime goal of Wallace in Tuscaloosa, home of a powerful Ku Klux Klan faction at the time, said Bill Jones, who was Wallace's press secretary.

It was vastly different from what occurred in September 1962 at the University of Mississippi, where two people were killed and more than 150 federal marshals were injured when the first black student enrolled.

Like other places, Alabama still has racial problems. Jesse Jackson visited the state recently in opposition to the hiring of a white football coach over a black candidate, and fraternities and sororities are still mostly segregated.

"There's very little mingling going on in the dining area, and that's very frustrating," Hood said. "The fight that I fought was for us to be able to mingle with other students."

But on campus, interracial friendships have been forged just around the corner from where Wallace made his stand. Courtney Tooson, a black student from Birmingham, said he wishes there was more emphasis on remembering what happened in '63.

"If you don't teach someone their past, how can they dictate their future?" he asked.


By Jay Reeves
  • Francie Grace

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