Earlier this year, I visited The University of Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus with two friends. It was an unusually warm day, in the 60s. Rain clouds threatened overhead. Co-eds bustled about the campus, which is not surprising for a university with 38,000 students.
One of my friends, Joel Goldstein, is an alumnus, and he described a completely different day on campus in 1963 when he was a sophomore. That day was sunny, hot, and humid, the way Alabama can get. Goldstein does not recall encountering too many students as he walked across the campus 55 years ago. It was the summer semester and enrollment was probably only about 3,000. On that particular day, however, there was a place on campus where a large number of people gathered.
The day Goldstein was thinking about was June 11, 1963, and it’s a date noted in history because it was the day Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, stood in the doorway at Fuller Auditorium in an attempt to prevent two African-American students from registering for classes. The crowd did not consist primarily of students, but rather hundreds of State of Alabama law enforcement officers, which included a huge contingent of uniformed state troopers. About 500 Alabama National Guardsmen were stationed nearby. The two students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, sat in a car nearby with U.S. Marshals while U.S. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach approached Wallace. Goldstein and about 200 to 300 spectators stood behind a painted white line.
This juncture in history, according to historians, was anything but impromptu. Dr. Earl H. Tilford, accompanied us to the site. Tilford pointed out that planning for the event had been on going for months. The university’s president at the time, Frank Rose, in consultation with U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and other leaders, attempted to plan everything to the last detail. They had legitimate worries for public safety. Only a year earlier at the University of Mississippi, violent protests erupted when that school attempted integration. Two people were killed and another 28 were shot.
Tuscaloosa was home of the Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America. Given Wallace’s provocative inauguration address only months earlier when he promised “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” those concerns were real. The chances of violent protests and riots were high, so high that even Wallace was involved in the planning despite his segregationist position. Tilman noted that Wallace did not want violence at the state’s flagship campus and made a deal with the local Klan that they would not protest in exchange for some consideration in a pending criminal case against a Klansman.
Goldstein recalled part of the planning included making all students sign an agreement stating they would not engage in protests, either for or against integration. They faced expulsion if they did. Tilford said other plans included trying to remove anything nearby that might be used as a “missile” such as bricks stacked up for a construction project. To Goldstein’s knowledge, there were no protests, and Tilford concurred.
After refusing the demand from the U.S. Deputy Attorney General to move, Wallace, flanked by state troopers, gave a speech about state’s rights and then waited inside for the federal government’s next move. That move came a few hours later when President John F. Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard, putting them under his command. General Henry Graham, following orders, approached Wallace and said, “Sir, it is my sad duty to ask you to step aside under orders of the President of the United States.” Wallace eventually did and left the campus. The law enforcement officers were removed, but the guardsmen stayed on campus for a while even though there was never any violence.
The behind the scenes facts surrounding the event are fascinating as is a reading of Tilford’s book, Turning the Tide. It’s a captivating historical record of the university in the 1960s. Much of that day’s events were choreographed like the fact that Malone and Hood did not have to register at Fuller Auditorium because they had actually done so earlier in the day at the courthouse in Birmingham.
Regardless of one’s perspective about Wallace’s career and actions, he did, according to Tilford and others, do what he could to avoid violence. He ensured there was enough manpower present in the form of law enforcement and guardsmen to put down any violent protests that might spring up despite the planning. Tilford writes, by standing in the door, Wallace “substituted himself for the mobs that thwarted desegregation.” Wallace was always going to step aside. There was never going to be a physical confrontation between the state’s officials and those of the federal government.
Treading the ground with Goldstein, an actual witness, and Tilford, who has meticulously researched the event, the inevitable question came to mind. Why is June 11, 1963 important? It was a day that violence, segregation, and Jim Crow did not win, but inclusion and the rule of law did. It was a day of victory in the long war for equal rights, and a day where the American people won.