The milestone incident known as the stand in the schoolhouse door took place fifty-three years ago today, June 11, 1963, at the University of Alabama, when Alabama’s Governor George Wallace attempted to physically block two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling in the university. It was one of the crucial moments in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and a shining example of graceful leadership under immense pressure.
Previously, in his inaugural address as governor, Wallace had shouted “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He repeatedly assured his constituents that he would keep his promise and defy any and all federal court orders forcing integration in his state. So on that fateful day he was determined, and honor-bound, to stand his ground. Part savvy politician, part carnival barker, Wallace certainly had a flair for the dramatic and he had staged quite a show for his rabid fans. For his part, Kennedy had to find a way to enforce federal court orders without playing into Wallace’s hands by turning him into a high-profile martyr for the southern racist cause, let alone keep the peace on a campus swarming with white supremacists itching for a fight. The riots a year earlier between whites and national guard troops at Oxford Mississippi over James Meredith had to have been fresh in his mind. (Listen to Bob Dylan’s Oxford Town)
During the stand-off JFK and his brother Bobby were busy working the phones between Washington and their agent at Alabama, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. They were very hesitant to just “kick the governor out of the way.” Their primary dilemma: sending troops too soon might set off violence, but waiting too long might be seen as a retreat. Their solution: Malone and Hood waited out of site under a federal marshals’ protection while Katzenbach went forth to confront Wallace face-to-face on the steps of the admissions building. He calmly and respectfully served the court order and listened to the recalcitrant Wallace’s prepared statement. Kennedy then ordered Katzenbach to turn away, walk back to the students, and escort them to their dormitories. It worked! There was no riot, but also no retreat. Wallace was able to save face with his people and leave the scene. Malone and Hood quietly returned the next day and registered without incident.
Alabama was the last American state to desegregate its universities. Luckily, due to the Kennedy brothers’ resolve and quick thinking under pressure, the Tide went out with a whimper and not a bang. That night President Kennedy went on national television to give a groundbreaking speech. In the age of Trump it is important to hear his words again on this important anniversary…
Watch the great documentary on these days by Robert Drew. I read somewhere that this was the first movie that Obama screened when he entered the White House in January 2009? See it below:
Watch NBC News coverage of the standoff at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963
Read Wallace’s telegram to JFK from one month earlier condemning the use of federal troops in Birmingham