The governor who stood in the doorway to stop black students entering university – and the landmark speech which followed

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This is the third of my posts based on a recent tour of the eastern half of the USA. I visited a number of sites relevant to African American history. To mark Black History Month, I am relating some of the things I saw, in the order I saw them.

On the first day of my tour, I made a bee-line for the John F Kennedy Presidential library and museum. It’s on the outskirts of Boston and quite magnificant. In the comprehensive display of JFK history, one of the events given prominence concerned two African American students trying to enrol in a previously all-white Alabaman university in June 1963. takes up the story:

On (June 11th) 1963, President John F. Kennedy issues presidential proclamation 3542, forcing Alabama Governor George Wallace to comply with federal court orders allowing two African-American students to register for the summer session at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The proclamation ordered Wallace and all persons acting in concert with him to cease and desist from obstructing justice.

The battle between Kennedy and Wallace brought to a head the long, post-Civil War struggle between the federal government and recalcitrant southern states over the enforcement of federal desegregation laws. Kennedy, a Catholic, considered racial segregation morally wrong. As of 1963, Alabama was the only state that had not integrated its education system. From the time of his gubernatorial campaign in 1962 until this day in 1963, Wallace had boldly proclaimed that he would personally stand in front of the door of any Alabama schoolhouse that was ordered by the federal courts to admit black students. In response to Wallace’s rhetoric, Kennedy sent his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, on April 25 to negotiate with Wallace; the talks failed. The Kennedy brothers, having decided that they were dealing with a raving maniac, looked for an indirect solution. JFK appealed to Alabama business leaders and influential politicians to talk sense into Wallace. On May 21 and again on June 5, the U.S. district court ordered Wallace to allow the students to register on June 11. Wallace dug in and refused, hoping to force JFK to call up the National Guard, an act Wallace was sure would infuriate staunch states’ rights supporters and paint JFK as a tyrant. Robert Kennedy wanted his brother to go ahead and federalize the Alabama National Guard and arrest Wallace, but the president feared that such an action would play into Wallace’s hands. So, the president waited for Wallace to make the first move.

On the morning of June 11, the day the students were expected to register, Wallace stood in front of the University of Alabama campus auditorium flanked by Alabama state troopers while cameras flashed and recorders from the press corps whirred. Kennedy, at the White House, and Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, in Tuscaloosa, kept in touch by phone. When Wallace refused to let the students enter for registration, Katzenbach phoned Kennedy. Kennedy upped the pressure on Wallace, immediately issuing Presidential Proclamation 3542, which ordered the governor to comply, and authorizing the secretary of defense to call up the Alabama National Guard with Executive Order 11111. That afternoon, Katzenbach returned with the students and asked Wallace to step aside. Wallace, knowing he was beaten, relented, having saved face with his hard-line, anti-segregation constituency. Three days later, a third black student registered at the University of Alabama campus in Huntsville without interference.

The JFK museum has a large display about this incident. It includes footage of Bobbie Kennedy, who was then US Attorney General, organising the federal response during the day, via a speaker phone in his Washington DC office.

After this incident, President John F. Kennedy addressed the US nation with a very eloquent and passionate speech on civil rights. I would strongly recommend watching it, it is a landmark speech in the history of African American rights in the USA. Here it is in a recording from CBS which is in the John F Kennedy Presidential library digital archive:

As a footnote, I later visited Montgomery, Alabama and heard about George Wallace – the governor who stood in the doorway. George Wallace was one of most vocal supporters of segregation. However, he had a conversion in later life, apologised to African Americans for his previous stance and actions, and worked against segregation and for Black civil rights.

I had the great honour and pleasure of a tour around the Alabama State Capitol. My guide was Aroine Irby. An extraordinary man (pictured below to my right with some international pastors who were in a tour group) – he flew fighter planes in Vietnam and over the Iron Curtain and marched in the famous walk from Selma to Montgomery with Dr Martin Luther King Jr. In the late 1970s, he was in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, just a stone’s throw from the Alabama State Capitol, when George Wallace came in, in his wheelchair (the result of an assassination attempt). Aroine Irby said that Mr Wallace cried for six minutes and then apologised and asked for forgiveness, for his pro-segregation past, from the African Americans present. It was quite a moving eye-witness account of history.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is currently taking a break from his role as one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 3rd Oct '17 - 12:48pm

    More terrific heartwarming inspirational stuff from , you , Paul! This shows the naysayers the real progressive and sensible JFK, not the maligned man or the myth.

    I would not say Wallace was ever a maniac, his later change has proven that , he was typical of all too many Southern bigots initially, very atypical later.

    There is an excellent film about him you many not have seen, with the actor, Gary Sinise, called, , guess what, Gerorge Wallace.
    It is a very good and pretty accurate depiction of much of the story.

  • Paul,
    I must say I have enjoyed this little series of yours. Nicely balanced and concise.
    Well done.

  • I am not a great ‘US fan’ I have to say, but my goodness these are great reports, which I have found totally fascinating. Thank you!

  • Thank you for your report

  • Simon Banks 10th Nov '17 - 3:18pm

    Like Orville Faubus (Arkansas), and unlike Maddox or Thurmond, Wallace was, I suspect, not so much of a racist by choice or prejudice as a politician who believed he had to act racist to be elected. He was, though, a right-wing populist ahead of his time, whereas Faubus was virtually a socialist – but behaved the same way on segregation.

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