The air in Washington is thick, humid, and hot. It’s another 90+ degree day here, but nothing compared to the scorching temperatures in Tuscaloosa, Alabama 48 years ago today when segregation at the University of Alabama ceded to integration. It was a lengthy road which included the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that stated separate public schools were not inherently equal and thus overturned the longstanding Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of “separate but equal” and culminated nearly a decade later with the stand in the schoolhouse door.
In 1956, two years after the Brown ruling, Autherine Lucy tested the decision at the University of Alabama. What she received was a stark wake-up call. Despite the law of the land, the south was not ready to integrate its public universities.
Seven years passed before two courageous African-American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, would try again. The year before, in the fall of 1962, James Meredith’s attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi led to a full-scale riot, the use of federal troops, a tear-gassed campus in chaos, two deaths (including a member of the media), and countless injuries.
The sentiment about segregation was no different in Alabama than in Mississippi. Alabama was led by Governor George Wallace, a champion of the white south who pledged during his gubernatorial campaign, “segregation now …. segregation tomorrow … segregation forever.” Wallace didn’t disappoint. He fought the Kennedy Administration every step of the way to prevent Malone and Hood from integrating the University of Alabama and he vowed to stand in the schoolhouse door to prevent their registration. On June 11, 1963, Governor Wallace kept that promise.
Wallace’s challenger for this confrontation was Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. Standing at 6’ 2” he towered over Wallace. While Wallace was on a mission, so was Katzenbach. He was sent to Tuscaloosa by his boss, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to represent the Administration and insure that Malone and Hood successfully registered for classes at the University of Alabama, the last public university to integrate.
No one wanted history to repeat itself. The Kennedys could not afford another Ole Miss and the University of Alabama could not afford another Autherine Lucy. While both parties appeared to want the same thing, the one wildcard was Gov. Wallace. He advocated non-violence, but neither Katzenbach nor the attorney general nor the president knew what to expect.
With the media out in full force, Katzenbach called it like he saw it “a show.” The press got what they expected, Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door. But what they didn’t get was a visual image of the two students being turned away. Katzenbach had the foresight to have Malone and Hood wait in the car. When Wallace refused to step aside, the students were taken to their respective dorms preventing an image of them turned away from being splashed across newspapers. Instead, the pictures remembered are of Katzenbach standing up to Wallace, and of the two students walking into Foster Auditorium later that afternoon once federal troops were mobilized.
While this confrontation had a peaceful ending, it also has a unique twist that didn’t materialize until decades later when Vivian Malone’s younger sister, Sharon Malone, married Eric Holder. Before being appointed as the first African-Amerian Attorney General by President Obama, Holder became the first African-American to serve as Deputy Attorney General, the position Katzenbach held in 1963 when he confronted Wallace. Holder’s appointment in 1997 as the number two at the U.S. Department of Justice, let alone the election of a black president, were feats unimaginable when Holder’s sister-in-law, Vivian, was fighting to attend her home state public university.
“It’s interesting, you’re 12 years old and you see this stuff happening in 1963,” Holder said, “But at that point the possibility that an African-American can be president, given what was going on then and the wrenching struggles that this nation had to endure, is not something I would have thought possible.”
Nor did Holder think he would ever become Deputy Attorney General or later Attorney General. The impressions, and lessons, that Katzenbach made on a young Eric Holder are everlasting. “When I became deputy in 1997, Nick Katzenbach was a person who by then, I never met, but who I knew from history,” Holder said. “One of the things I always do as I take these jobs is try to think about who my predecessors are and what they do well … As I thought about what I wanted to do as deputy I wanted to be a force beyond simply making sure that the ship was running on time and I took that from the experience of having seen him [Katzenbach] playing such a pivotal role in a historical event.”