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50 years since the "stand in the schoolhouse door"

University of Alabama

In June of 1963, Vivian Malone and James Hood finished the trail Autherine Lucy blazed. Lucy was the first African American to enroll at the University of Alabama in 1956. She lasted only a few days after facing segregationist protesters who burned an effigy copy of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown V. Board of Education, which ordered schools be integrated. Malone and Hood’s ambitions to go school at the Tuscaloosa campus in 1963 prompted a political cash of titans. “It was an iconic time,” says Dr. Culpepper Clark, author of the book The Stand in the School House Door. “Which pitted the Kennedy Administration against the South’s biggest champion of segregation, Governor George Wallace.” Wallace, who trumpeted ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever’ during his inauguration speech earlier that year in Montgomery, stood in the doorway of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to keep Malone and Hood from signing up for classes. The Kennedy White House sent a representative to deliver the legal decision ordering the two students be allowed in. However, it was officer of the Alabama National Guard who successfully ordered Wallace to step aside. Dr. Culpepper says Wallace was handled gently. “The Kennedy administration was fearful that if they had to move him forcibly from the door, in other words lay hands on him,” says Culpepper. “The concern was that they would have to arrest him, which could prompt a constitutional crisis over the tenth amendment.” The tenth amendment of the U.S. Constitution establishes which powers fall to the federal government, which ones belong to the States. Wallace had long challenged the Kennedy administration’s stance on desegregation, unpopular among his supporters in Alabama. Still, Wallace gave up and left. Behind the speeches by the President and Alabama’s Governor, Culpepper says there was genuine concern over what the public might do as a result of actions taken during the “stand in the schoolhouse door.” “The University and Governor Wallace were determined not to have another Ole Miss crisis,” he says. “On September 30, 1962, where there was an actual shoot-out and a couple of deaths.” All sides had reason to be concerned. The day after the “stand” ended in Tuscaloosa, an assassin shot and killed Medgar Evers, Mississippi’s coordinator of the NAACP. Fifty years after Governor Wallace allowed Hood and Malone to enroll at the University of Alabama, President Judi Bonner welcomed members of the U.S. Congress to the campus to remember that day’s events. Among them was U.S. Representative John Lewis, who was especially move by the original doors, which are preserved and on display. “I wanted to reach out and touch the doors,” said Lewis. “But, they were so special, so sacred, I couldn’t touch.” Lewis’ comments were made in front of a commemorative clock tower at Foster Auditorium. It contains four clock faces. Three of them look out on the campus of the University of Alabama. The fourth looks back on the auditorium, where the “stand in the schoolhouse door” took place in 1963.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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