When Alabama Gov. George Wallace positioned himself defiantly at the entrance to a University of Alabama gymnasium in 1963, he created a moment and phrase that still echoes half a century later.
His “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” was an attempt to keep African-Americans out of the state’s flagship university in Tuscaloosa. The politician, who had vowed “Segregation now, Segregation tomorrow, Segregation forever,” provided one of the most dramatic moments of the 1960s when he tried to block two students from enrolling at the University of Alabama.
It wasn’t until 2010 that the incident was finally formally commemorated by the university when it dedicated a clock and plaza at the site of the confrontation.
The area, sacred ground in the battle for civil rights, is centered on a 40-foot brick tower. It contains markers, noting the importance of the event. It’s easily accessible on campus — just a few blocks from the museum dedicated to another Alabama legend: football coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant.
The two students who confronted Wallace, Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood, arrived at the university’s Foster Auditorium on the morning of June 11, 1963, to register for classes. They were escorted by U.S. deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach with the support of the Alabama National Guard, which had been federalized that day by President Kennedy.
The confrontation itself was largely theater. Katzenbach asked Wallace to step aside, and the governor responded with a short speech. Although military officials were prepared to forcefully remove Wallace, he allowed the students o register. The moment of symbolic defiance launched him on to the international stage and into the Presidential spotlight.
At the dedication ceremony, Hood said he still remembers Wallace blocking his way. “The Governor said ‘You can’t come in.’ I wanted to smack him in the face, but I couldn’t. I’m a better man than that.”
The two students were following in the footsteps of Autherine Lucy Foster. In 1956, Foster was accepted at the university and enrolled, but only stayed for three days. The African-American woman was told that the school could not protect her, and was later expelled. Decades later she enrolled at the university again and in 1992 finally earned a master’s degree in education at the school. And in 2019, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university.
Malone Jones stayed and became the first African-American to graduate from the University of Alabama. In a sign of how Alabama changed, in 1996 she was honored by the George Wallace Family Foundation as the first recipient of its “Lurleen B. Wallace Award of Courage.” At the time the former governor said of Malone Jones: She “conducted herself with grace, strength and, above all, courage.”
In another surprising twist, her younger sister married an attorney, named Eric Holder, who went on to become the first African-American Attorney General of the United States. .
But happy endings were hardly assured after the confrontation at Foster Auditorium. The next day, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Miss., and many (including President Kennedy and his brother, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy), feared violence might spread across the South. You can learn more about the incident in the video below.
Hear Wallace’s statement at the door, and student Vivian Malone Jones’ recollection of that day here.
Other Tuscaloosa sites
Like other Southern cities, Tuscaloosa has a deep African-American history. A self-guided driving tour covers several important sites:
Make time to stop by the Old Tuscaloosa Jail, 2803 6th Street, where a marker chronicles eight lynchings that occurred in Tuscaloosa County from 1884 to 1933. At least one man, Henry Burke, was seized from the jail and killed by a mob.
Other sites include the flagpole at 2410 University Boulevard where a crowd of several thousand rallied after Autherine Lucy Foster was admitted to the University, and the former Druid Theater, 2400 University Boulevard, where visiting Hollywood actor Jack Palance was attacked by a crowd because it was believed he supported integration.
Find a University of Alabama campus map here.
You’ll find plenty of national chains in the area. Room rates are highest and availability toughest during home football game weekends. Hotel Capstone is Tuscaloosa’s only full-service accommodation, and where the Crimson Tide football team stays before every home game. Rooms from $115.
The antiques-decorated Jack Warner at NorthRiver is located about 20 minutes from campus.
The essential food group here, of course, is barbecue. The legendary Dreamland offers an unwavering menu of smoky ribs, spicy sauce and slices of white bread.
But others favor Archibald’s, a smoke-stained cinderblock shack. It’s cash or local check only, and seating’s just a few counter stools and picnic tables under a tree.
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