It was a famous scene in civil rights history. Fifty years ago today, two Black students, James Hood and Vivian Malone, walked through the doors of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa despite then-Gov. George Wallace’s infamous attempt to block the door and defy court orders. Having pledged in his 1963 inaugural speech, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” Wallace took what became known as the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” on June 11, 1963, but what he faced was a phalanx of federal government attorneys, marshals and eventually the federalized Alabama National Guard, all mobilized to carry through the court’s desegregation order.
Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach represented the Kennedy administration and confronted Wallace at the door. The New York Times reported:
“Katzenbach said he had a proclamation from President Kennedy directing Governor Wallace to end his defiant stand. He asked the Governor to give way, but Mr. Wallace interrupted him and began reading a lengthy statement.
‘The unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama today of the might of the Central Government offers a frightful example of the oppression of the rights, privileges and sovereignty of this state by officers of the Federal Government,’ he asserted.”
The Times report continues, “The Governor implied that there might have been violence were it not for his presence when he said:
‘I stand before you today in place of thousands of other Alabamians whose presence would have confronted you had I been derelict and neglected to fulfill the responsibilities of my office.'”
Katzenbach responded to Wallace by asking him repeatedly to step aside.
“Governor, I am not interested in a show,” Katzenbach said. “I don’t know what the purpose of this show is. I am interested in the orders of these courts being enforced. I would ask you once again to responsibly step aside. If you do not, I’m going to assure you that the orders of these courts will be enforced.”
Katzenbach told the governor, “Those students will remain on this campus. They will register today. They will go to school tomorrow.”
After Kennedy federalized the guard, the commander then ordered Wallace to step aside, saying, “Sir, it is my sad duty to ask you to step aside under the orders of the President of the United States.” Wallace spoke further, but eventually moved, and Malone and Hood registered as students.
In an obituary of Hood, BET writes, “Hood and Malone entered the University of Alabama in an environment of tense emotion and resistance to integration…It was a challenging experience for Hood and Malone. He lived in a dorm with federal marshals staying on his floor. After his father became ill with cancer, Hood left the college ‘to avoid a complete mental and physical breakdown.'” Malone went on to graduate, becoming the first African American to receive a diploma from the university. Hood “later earned a bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University in Detroit and a master’s degree from Michigan State University.”
Ten years before Hood and Malone challenged Alabama’s segregation, Autherine Lucy sued the university in 1953 to prevent it from denying admission solely based on race or color. Lucy became the first African American to attend the school when she was admitted in 1956. On the third day of classes, a hostile mob assembled to prevent Lucy from attending classes. The police were called to secure her admission but, that evening, the university suspended Lucy on the grounds that it could not provide a safe environment. The university overturned her expulsion in 1980, and in 1992, Lucy earned her Masters degree in Elementary Education from the university that she was admitted two decades earlier.
This month, the Supreme Court will announce its decision on several civil rights cases, including one involving the University of Texas that could have dire consequences on the fight for campus diversity.
Photo: Vivian Malone enters Foster Auditorium to register for classes at the University of Alabama. (CC)