The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Opinion

June 16, 2013

Capstone should remember past, honor progress

— The Tuscaloosa News on George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door:

The events of 1963 are hard to reconcile with the air-conditioned, computer-aided, Internet-connected reality of 2013. And yet the simple, gritty, sweaty, simmering anger and social upheaval of half a century ago were real, factual history.

For the first 132 years of its history, the University of Alabama had a “whites only” sign hung on it as surely as the water fountains and lunch counters of any Southern downtown. Black people worked and paid taxes to the state but couldn’t get an education at its flagship university. The governor of the state embraced that inherent unfairness and vowed to maintain it.

It wouldn’t be the first showdown on a Southern college campus. One year earlier in 1962, the University of Mississippi exploded into violence and neared anarchy as the first black student, James Meredith, enrolled there.

The University of Alabama would avoid the chaos that descended on Ole Miss. The confrontation between Gov. George C. Wallace and Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach was as much a contrived media event as it was a tense showdown. While avoiding spontaneous violence might have been a relief to UA officials, they had little way of knowing the lasting impact Wallace’s grandstanding would have on the institution.

Wallace would adapt his political career to changing times and eventually regain the governor’s mansion in 1982 with the backing of most of the state’s black voters. ...

When Wallace stepped aside, Vivian Malone and James Hood walked through. They announced that more than a quarter of the state’s population and millions of people from other states would no longer be shut out. It took many years to pry open the door, and it required the leveraged strength of the federal government. But what has happened in the intervening years is equally important.

The University of Alabama is still a work in progress, as is all of American society. In the 50 years since Malone and Hood walked through the door of Foster Auditorium there have been difficult moments on the road to racial equality. But it is a road that UA has traveled in good faith, and it has come far. Its progress is worth celebrating.

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