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Wallace in the Schoolhouse Door

Forty years ago today, Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood at the door of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama in a symbolic attempt to block two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling at the school. The drama of the nation's division over desegregation came sharply into focus that June day. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

It was the same year that civil rights marchers had been turned back with police dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, Ala. The year began with Wallace vowing "segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever" in his inaugural speech.

During his campaign, Wallace talked of physically putting himself between the schoolhouse door and any attempt to integrate Alabama's all-white public schools.

So when a federal judge ordered Malone and Hood be admitted to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa that summer, Wallace had the perfect opportunity to fulfill his pledge, Elliott reports.

Cully Clark is dean of the university's College of Communication and author of The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation's Last Stand at the University of Alabama. He says President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, personally negotiated what was to happen in Tuscaloosa that summer, but they weren't sure what Wallace would do.

"They knew he would step aside," Clark says. "I think the fundamental question was how." Just in case, Clark says, National Guard troops had practiced how to physically lift the governor out of the doorway.

On June 11, with temperatures soaring, a large contingent of national media looked on as Wallace took his position in front of Foster Auditorium. State troopers surrounded the building. Then, flanked by federal marshals, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach told Wallace he simply wanted him to abide by the federal court order.

Wallace refused, citing the constitutional right of states to operate public schools, colleges and universities. Katzenbach called President Kennedy, who federalized the Alabama National Guard to help with the crisis. Ultimately, Wallace stepped aside and the two students were allowed to register for classes.

But the incident catapulted the governor into the national spotlight and he went on to make four runs at the presidency. It was also a watershed event for President Kennedy, who in staring down the South's most defiant segregationist aligned himself solidly with the civil rights movement.

Vivian Malone Jones, then a 20-year-old transfer from an all-black college, said her goal was simply to sign-up for accounting classes. "I didn't feel I should sneak in, I didn't feel I should go around the back door. If [Wallace] were standing the door, I had every right in the world to face him and to go to school."

Two years later, she became the first African American to graduate from the University of Alabama.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Debbie Elliott
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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