When Alabama Gov. George Wallace positioned himself defiantly at the entrance to a University of Alabama gymnasium, 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.
In November, 2010, 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 new 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 stepped aside and the students were allowed to register. The moment of symbolic defiance launched him on to the international stage and into the presidential spotlight.
At the 2010 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.
Hood eventually transferred to another university, but 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. Holder, who attended the dedication ceremony honoring his late sister-in-law, said nothing to reporters that day, knowing, it seems, that her achievement helped lead to his decades later.
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.
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 Yellowhammer Inn is located about 20 minutes from campus, near the Westervelt-Warner Museum. Rooms from $85.
The essential food group here, of course, is barbecue. The legendary Dreamlandoffers 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.
For something more upscale, try Epiphany Cafe, a farm-to-table restaurant offering an artful take on local produce. The menu reads like a wine list, citing the farm that provided the artisanal greens, pork and beef.
Incredible Art Museum
As contemporary visitors soon discover, Alabama is a state of delightful surprises. A prime example: The Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art. Here you’ll find perhaps the world’s best private collection of American art, with work by John Singer Sargent, Albert Bierdstadt, Thomas Cole, James McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer and others. Most of the works were gathered by Jack Warner, patriarch of the Westervelt Company. Rent a $3 audio tour to hear Warner’s folksy but learned thoughts on the collection.