40 Years Of Darkness And Light

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
Under the hot Southern sun one afternoon 40 years ago today, Alabama's segregationist Governor George Wallace stood alongside highway patrolmen in hardhats as he bitterly fought, but ultimately failed, to block the admission of two black students at the doors of the all-white state university.

Blacks have been enrolled at the school ever since.

Hours later in Mississippi, in the quiet dark after midnight, the family of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers heard his car pull up their gravel driveway, and then a gunshot, bringing to an end the life of a civil rights icon.

President Kennedy had only just gone off the air after making his most impassioned stand on civil rights to date, a speech to the nation explaining the federal government's intervention on behalf of the black students that day, in which he spoke of a "moral crisis" now facing the nation. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called the president's address "a hallmark in the annals of American history."

Coming just two months before King's own landmark "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, it was a 24-hour period that stood out, in a year that stood out, in the modern fight for civil rights. It also changed American politics, launching Wallace onto the national political scene and marking the Democratic Party's definitive move into the corner of civil rights.

This week, Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood, the two students who faced the governor during the "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door," were honored during an anniversary observance at the university. And on Tuesday, a crowd of about 800 gathered in Evers' hometown of Decatur to remember him and his work, part of a "Week of Remembrance" which concludes with a graveside vigil at Arlington Cemetery on June 16.

During the keynote address at the University of Alabama Tuesday, Robert Kennedy Jr. recalled the confrontation between Wallace and his father, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

After his father was assassinated, and during Wallace's 1972 presidential campaign, Kennedy said, "It struck me then that every nation, like every human being, has a darker side and a lighter side."

Some people, he said, implying Wallace, appeal to ignorance and hatred, while others, like the civil rights pioneers who've gathered during this week of anniversaries, represent enlightenment and acceptance.

Wallace's stand, mostly an act of political stagecraft, came during a time of racial turmoil across the South, and it helped earn his re-election to three more terms as governor. A Democratic populist at the time, he was elevated as a champion of conservative whites who helped launch the Reagan revolution in 1980. By the time of his death in 1998, the man who once proclaimed "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," was a Republican who'd renounced his segregationist views.

Evers' death, rather than snuffing out a fledgling civil rights movement, focused national attention on the plight of blacks in the South.

Evers became an NAACP leader in 1954, after the University of Mississippi, then all-white, rejected his law school application. During those turbulent times, even joining the NAACP could bring death threats from whites who felt their way of life was under attack.

Through the NAACP, Evers pushed to increase black voter registration, led business boycotts and helped bring attention to murders like the 1955 slaying of black teenager Emmett Till.

Immediately after Evers' murder, for which segregationist Byron de la Beckwith was ultimately convicted 30 years later, Charles Evers left his life in Chicago behind to take up his younger brother's post at the NAACP.

Charles Evers became mayor of the tiny town of Fayette in 1969, and in 1971 he became the first black candidate in modern times to make a serious, but unsuccessful, run for governor. Now a prominent Republican, he said Mississippi has changed "almost 100 percent" since his brother's slaying.

"The attitudes of whites in this state have changed tremendously toward blacks," said Charles Evers. "I have white friends now who wouldn't have had anything to do with me 40 years ago."

Segregated bus stations and water fountains are long gone. Universities and public schools are desegregated. In Jackson, the main U.S. Post Office and one of the busiest streets are named for Medgar Evers.

In Alabama, the state university's student body is now about 13 percent black. Jones, who entered the school 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.

This week's observance 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.

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.

Written By TRICIA McDERMOTT