First, it should be remembered for what is was not. It was not a legitimate defiance of federal power. The late Gov. Wallace simply wanted a national stage to illustrate his unflinching resolve to fight the federal government. His “stand in the door was a campaign promise technically kept, even if it had no effect on the integration of the University.
At his inaugural speech a few months earlier the governor had vowed “segregation today, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever,” which became something of a battle cry for those millions who opposed the civil rights movement, particularly the integration of the public schools and universities.
As Vivian Malone and James Hood moved closer to being accepted as students who would be attending classes at UA, Wallace found himself in a quandary. He vowed that would not happen, yet he knew that violent uprisings much like those at Ole Miss earlier, were the only way to delay integration, and even that would not stop it.
So, he devised a way to stand up to the feds, yet allow the students into school. The troops surrounding Gov. Wallace that day had been federalized and they reported to the feds, not to Wallace. But only Wallace and the troops knew that. On television, and in the black/white still photos of that day, it appears that Wallace is in command.
He was not. After he reads his little speech, he ducks back inside the door and heads for Montgomery, leaving Malone and Hood to begin classes.
From 50 years later the streaky TV coverage and dark newspaper photos convey a sense of drama, but for a generation or two that grew up after those events of 1963, it is hard to determine what the fuss was all about. Thankfully, they don’t remember a time when access to public institutions was determined by the color of your skin.
That is not to say that racism is dead. It isn’t, and we know that. At times, in white-only company, the language changes and racial slurs are common. There is no doubt that many whites still think African Americans are inferior in some way. Those of us who know that is not the case are often ridiculed and tempers sometimes run hot in such discussions.
But those are personal opinions, and no amount of legislation can change those.
What legislation can and has changed is the law of the land, which guarantees access to public institutions regardless of skin color.
In 1963, that was not the case. By 1966, the Jim Crow era had essentially ended, and integration of public schools, libraries, bus lines and lunch counters was pretty much accepted if not supported by a large part of the population.
Arthur Dunning, a professor and senior research fellow at the University of Alabama, along with his wife Professor Karen Baynes Dunning cochairs the 50th anniversary committee. They are exactly the right people to lead this effort.
Arthur Dunning was one of the first black students at the university, enrolling in 1966. Malone and Hood had already led the way, and others had also been there. But the atmosphere was still tense.
“You could still feel it in the community. You could feel it in the state of Alabama and indeed feel it on this campus. I was treated almost as an invisible person. I spent a lot of my free time at Stillman College,” Dunning said. Stillman is a historically black college in Tuscaloosa.
So, Dunning was there just after the tense times, and there when black students were still considered a novelty. Thankfully, that is not the case today and African-American students are seen all over the campus at UA, attending classes, playing basketball in the gyms, hanging out and just being college students.
But that wasn’t always the case. It took a determined group of black citizens, two brave first students in Malone and Hood, and in the end, a governor who made his political points while giving in to the inevitability of the situation.
We look forward to the Dunnings’ plans for remembering those tense days of 50 years ago. Those days are not to be recalled with affection or nostalgia. They are to be remembered as a dark spot in our past that we have thankfully moved past.