Posts Tagged ‘George Wallace’

June 11, 1963

June 11, 1963 - Stand in the School House Door

June 11, 1963 – Stand in the School House Door

I woke up this morning and eagerly flipped through the pages of The Washington Post (yes, the hard copy).  I was looking for something commemorating this day, June 11, in history. I didn’t find what I was looking for in the print version so I went to The Washington Post online and found an interesting AP story about Peggy Wallace Kennedy who has spent her life living in the shadows of her father, segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace.

It was fifty years ago today that Wallace came face to face with Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach over the integration of the University of Alabama. The photograph capturing the stand in the school house door is one of the most iconic images of the civil rights movement  (see my post from June 11, 2011)

Tuesday, June 11, 1963 started off tense in Alabama. Later that day President Kennedy was forced to mobilize the National Guard to insure that two African-American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, were able to register peacefully at the University of Alabama. But as that day turned to night violence erupted shortly after midnight.  Civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot and killed in his own driveway in Jackson, Mississippi as his wife and children looked on in horror.

Their nightmare was just beginning shortly after President John F. Kennedy gave a watershed speech on civil rights in which he equated civil rights as a moral issue for the first time. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution,” said President Kennedy, “The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.” A year later the Civil Rights Act was passed to do just that, but President Kennedy never lived to see that day nor did Medgar Evers or many other foot soldiers in the civil rights movement. My fear this morning was that history was being forgotten. But by the end of the day I learned otherwise.  To mark the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s civil rights speech the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library announced the launching of a new website that documents  “the 1963 civil rights narrative … drawn principally from the Kennedy Library archives.” Thus history lives on.


University of Alabama

Today I’m heading to Tuscaloosa to speak at the University of Alabama’s Memorial Service for Nicholas Katzenbach which is being held today, June 11, the 49th anniversary of the stand in the school house door. If you are a new blog follower check out my post from last year about this historic confrontation and the lengths the federal government went to insure that the University of Alabama was integrated. Tune in tomorrow to read about the memorial service which was planned by the students inspired by Katzenbach’s life.

2011 Film Registry

Every year at the end of December, the Library of Congress announces 25 films that have been added to the National Film Registry to be preserved as cultural, artistic and historical treasures.

Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (my most watched DVD)

This year I learned the news first-hand from the Director of the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus facility where much of the Library’s audio visual material is stored and preserved. We met briefly in the Motion Picture and Television reading room in the Madison Building. It was Wednesday, December 28, and I had taken the day off to view television news programs as part of my research for the Katzenbach biography. My original plan was to watch Katzenbach on Meet the Press in 1965, but instead I ended up watching Alabama Governor George Wallace on Meet the Press in 1963, just days before his infamous stand in the Schoolhouse Door (see my blog post on June 11, 2011).

Little did I know when the Director of the Packard Campus, with his camera crew in tow, asked my permission to be filmed for a story about the film registry that one of the 25 titles to make this year’s list was “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment.” This is actually one of the few films I own, and by far the DVD I have watched most. It is heralded as one of the first cinema verite films and broke new ground for documentaries on so many levels. Filmmaker Robert Drew and his crew transport you behind the scenes as decisions are made, and action taken, related to the integration of the University of Alabama. Drew is there on the steps of the University of Alabama when Katzenbach confronts Wallace. He is there during prep meetings with the students, and he is even in the oval office with President Kennedy.

I have to admit I think Crisis is a great choice by the Library.  Other titles that made the National Film Registry this year, and stole the spotlight, included Bambi and Forrest Gump (I liked those too).

Now that this blog is officially posted, it’s time to go celebrate the new year!

The Stand in the Schoolhouse Door

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.”