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  • After the Stand Comes the Fall: Racial Integration and White Student Reactions at the University of Alabama, 1963–1976
  • Paul Mokrzycki (bio)

As the ultimate symbol of white southern opposition to racial equality, Governor George C. Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama occupies a distinct place in recent American memory. Simultaneously a media spectacle and a source of national shame, Wallace’s defiance and ultimate defeat signify an easily identifiable national moment, one that understandably remains engrained in the minds of even the most casual followers of American history. Those dramatic images from June 11, 1963, nonetheless, “obscure even as they illuminate,” historian Dan Carter poignantly noted. In the 1994 film Forrest Gump, the title character, a star running back at the University of Alabama, hovers behind Wallace in curiosity as he makes his “stand.” Gump, in narration, remarks that “a few years later, that angry little man at the schoolhouse door thought it would be a good idea and ran for President [sic]. But somebody thought that it wasn’t,” alluding to the assassination attempt on Wallace in 1972.1 Here, as in other facile media representations of the civil rights movement, the intricacies that surround an event and shape its historical significance evaporate. For Carter, the “stand,” in all of its incendiary power, subsumes all the pertinent details that precede and follow it in the University of Alabama’s integration narrative.2 [End Page 290]

Carter’s astute observation falls short, however. Most people familiar with Wallace’s infamous performance in Tuscaloosa consider it to be the end of the story, but in actuality, integration at the Capstone was an arduous, protracted, and convoluted process. Vivian Malone and James Hood only desegregated the university for good in 1963. (Autherine Lucy had entered the university and been swiftly expelled, ostensibly for her own safety, in 1956.) Integration, on the other hand, entailed a complete and seamless incorporation of African Americans into every facet of academic life—from student government to the Greek system, from faculty hires to athletics, from housing arrangements to multicultural curriculum.

Others have noted the importance of distinguishing between integration and desegregation. According to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., “desegregation is eliminative and negative, for it simply removes . . . legal and social prohibitions. Integration is creative, and is therefore more profound and far-reaching than desegregation. Integration is the positive acceptance of desegregation and the welcomed participation of Negroes in the total range of human activities.”3 Child psychiatrist and civil rights activist Gloria Powell, furthermore, believed the terms “desegregation” and “integration” should not be used interchangeably, and this paper reflects this view. She defines desegregation as the elimination of any legalized, physical separation between races, while integration involves the incorporation of disparate groups into a cohesive whole.4

Despite the climate of intense racial discord that enveloped Alabama and the United States in 1963, the University of Alabama desegregated in a relatively orderly fashion, and because integration occurred at such an excruciatingly slow pace, white students rarely vocalized their opposition to the school’s gradually changing complexion. In fact, white students’ racial attitudes improved at a steady yet modest rate from 1963 to 1982. Only after African Americans [End Page 291] became a truly visible presence at the university in the late seventies and early eighties did previously sublimated tensions come to the surface with open exhibitions of white racism. A dwindling civil rights consciousness and a growing sense that blacks “threatened” the university’s social order caused white students to act in ways they never had before. The story of the University of Alabama’s integration, then, does not fit within a linear, progressive model of American history. Rather, it reveals the dynamic meanings of race, privilege, and community in the latter half of the twentieth century.

As such, this essay challenges, as other recent scholarship has, the normative periodization of the African American freedom struggle. Too many movement histories revert to a stock “Montgomery to Selma” or “Montgomery to Memphis” narrative, belying the experiences of civil rights activists and resisters before Rosa Parks and after James Earl Ray.5 Moreover, this study seeks to engage questions...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-9961
Print ISSN
0002-4341
Pages
pp. 290-313
Launched on MUSE
2012-11-10
Open Access
No
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