In June 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace accomplished a feat that not even the Union Army had managed until the closing days of the Civil War a century before. With his “stand in the schoolhouse door” — in reality, a well-orchestrated “stand-aside” — at the University of Alabama, Wallace ensured the occupation of Tuscaloosa and control of the Alabama campus by federal troops.
The U.S. District Court for Northern Alabama had ordered that two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, be enrolled at the university on June 11. Wallace, determined to make a symbolic show of living up to the “segregation forever” vow delivered in his inaugural address the year before, pledged to block integration of the school.
The showdown Wallace planned to stage in Tuscaloosa was a continuation of his clash with President John F. Kennedy over major Civil Rights demonstrations in Birmingham in April and May. Kennedy’s response, aimed both at enforcing the law of the land and neutralizing Wallace’s efforts to play the situation for maximum political advantage, would be firm and effective — but Wallace, too, would have his moment.
Mistakes in Mississippi
The experience with Birmingham was one of two significant events that informed Kennedy’s response to the challenge posed by Wallace’s announced intention to make a stand for segregation in Tuscaloosa. The other had taken place in the fall of 1962, when the president and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, chose to support the enrollment of James Meredith as the first black student at the University of Mississippi with the force of federal arms.
Rather than send military troops to accompany Meredith and maintain order, the Kennedys sent more than 120 U.S. Marshals to the Oxford, Mississippi, campus. They wanted to avoid the specter of federal occupation and thought that the presence of the marshals would be sufficient to compel Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett to keep the situation under control.
Instead, a mob of more than 2,000 greeted Meredith, resulting in a riot. When gunfire began coming from the crowd, the marshals were restricted from returning fire, but finally were allowed to use tear gas to drive back the mob. Scores were injured, including numerous marshals, and two men — a French journalist and a repairman who happened to be on the campus when the chaos erupted — were killed.
As the riot raged into the night, the President finally federalized the Mississippi National Guard. Order was not restored, however, until additional Army troops arrived around dawn the following day. Ultimately, a total of nearly 31,000 troops were deployed to Oxford (though no black soldiers were among them, as the commander had issued the order to “Keep Negro troops in base camps” — an order with which the Kennedys concurred).
The disorder, destruction and death at Ole Miss amounted to a costly learning experience for the president and the attorney general. In the spring of 1963, as more confrontation loomed in Alabama, the Kennedys were determined not to repeat the mistakes of Mississippi.
Setting the stage
As detailed in the May installment of Weld’s “No More Bull” series, the Kennedy White House closely monitored “Project C,” the 1963 Civil Rights campaign in Birmingham led by Martin Luther King Jr. and supported by the Movement’s local leader, Fred Shuttlesworth. Over several weeks that April and May, thousands of demonstrators — including schoolchildren — were arrested as they confronted police dogs and fire hoses deployed by Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor.
As tensions escalated, especially after children began joining the marches in May, the President sent Assistant Attorney Generals Burke Marshall and John Doar to Birmingham to mediate between Civil Rights leaders and a group of white business leaders who hoped to negotiate a peaceful end to the demonstrations. Meanwhile, Governor Wallace ordered 575 Alabama state troopers — including about 100 mounted patrolmen — into the city, equipped with tear gas, shotguns and other artillery.
On May 10, the negotiators reached an “Accord of Conscience.” The agreement ended the demonstrations and laid out timetables for removal of “White” and “Colored” signs from drinking fountains and restrooms, desegregation of eating establishments and department store fitting rooms, and increased employment opportunities for blacks at local retail establishments.
The Ku Klux Klan responded to the announcement of the accord the following day by dynamiting the A.G. Gaston Motel — Project C headquarters — on 5th Avenue North and the Ensley home of Rev. A.D. King, the brother of the Civil Rights leader. The bombings were followed by the full-scale disorder the Kennedys had hoped to avert, and which Wallace welcomed. Thousands of black citizens poured into the street in what historian Glenn T. Eskew has termed the first urban riot of the 1960s, burning and looting in the area around Kelly Ingram Park. Connor’s police and fire departments, along with Wallace’s state troopers, confronted the rioters in a melee that, according to Eskew, “injured at least fifty people” and left “[p]arts of Birmingham look[ing] like a war zone.”
But this time the Kennedys were prepared. In what was dubbed Operation Oak Tree, thousands of U.S. Army troops trained in riot control had been placed on alert to respond quickly to any disturbance in Birmingham. On May 12 — Mother’s Day, providing a sad echo of the savage beating of Freedom Riders by Klansmen at the Birmingham Trailways bus station on that holiday two years before — the president ordered troops dispatched to “military bases in the vicinity of Birmingham” and made preliminary steps to federalize the Alabama National Guard.
In a front-page editorial, The Birmingham News declared, “This is a Sabbath of Sorrow. Only the city’s people, white and negro, with prayers for tolerance and patience can restore law and order.” Wallace declared that he would stop the violence “if it takes 1,000 or 10,000 law enforcement officers, or whatever it takes” and that he would “not rest until the guilty are brought to justice and their evil scheme and motives disclosed.”
Kennedy and Wallace exchanged telegrams the following day. The governor challenged the authority of the president to intervene in Birmingham and “unequivocally” rejected “the authority of any group of white citizens to negotiate with the lawless mobsters who had been leading the Negroes in Birmingham in weeks of violence and lawbreaking.” In reply, Kennedy asserted his Constitutional duty to suppress domestic violence and alerted Wallace that federal troops would be sent to Birmingham “if necessary.”
The community leaders who worked out this agreement with a great sense of justice and foresight deserve to see it implemented in an atmosphere of law and order, Kennedy’s cable read. I trust that we can count on your constructive cooperation in maintaining such an atmosphere; but I would be derelict in my duty if I did not take the preliminary steps announced last night that will enable this government, if required, to meet its obligation without delay.
By May 18, more than 18,500 troops were on the ground in Birmingham. Order was restored, and the stage was set for the showdown in Tuscaloosa.
Operation Palm Tree
This was no mere game of political chicken. Kennedy took very seriously the threat of further bloodshed, and ensured that there was very close coordination between the Justice Department and the Army. He was well aware of the acknowledgment by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that response time at Oxford had been slow, and of their recommendation that a “Strike Force Command” be “prepared to move ready deployable tailored army forces” into Tuscaloosa on one hour’s alert, with some detailed to be on the Alabama campus in as little as 15 minutes.
On May 31, Operation Oak Tree ceased and Operation Palm Tree began. The new operation placed approximately 25,000 federal troops within easy reach of Tuscaloosa. In addition, the Alabama National Guard was placed on alert, with approximately 16,000 Guardsmen — along with another 1,839 men from the Air National Guard — augmented by more than 1,000 back-up troops stationed at Fort McClellan in Anniston.
On June 10, the day before the scheduled enrollment of Malone and Hood, Kennedy again telegraphed Wallace. The president clearly defined the issue as he saw it.
[T]he only announced threat to orderly compliance with the law, Kennedy told the governor, is your plan to bar physically the admission of Negro students in defiance of the order of the Alabama Federal District Court and in violation of accepted standards of public conduct. State, city and University officials have reported that, if you were to stay away from the campus, thus fulfilling your legal duty, there is little danger of disorder being incited which the local town and campus authorities could not adequately handle.
But Wallace was determined to make a public stand as the fearless defender of segregation and states’ rights. On June 11, as Malone and Hood arrived at Foster Auditorium to enroll, the governor stepped forward to block the entrance to the building, in full view of the national and international print and broadcast media assembled.
Standing behind a wooden lectern, Wallace was approached by Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, who requested that the governor stand aside. Wallace refused and began to read from a prepared statement that invoked the Founding Fathers, the Constitution of the United States and “the rights and sovereignty of this state and its peoples.
“I stand here today, as governor of this sovereign state, and refuse to willingly submit to illegal usurpation of power by the central government,” Wallace read. “I claim today for all the people of the State of Alabama those rights reserved to them under the Constitution of the United States. Among those powers so reserved and claimed is the right of state authority in the operation of the public schools, colleges and universities…My action seeks to avoid having state sovereignty sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.”
While Wallace was speaking, Katzenbach called Kennedy, who immediately federalized the Alabama National Guard. Now under the command of the president, General Henry Graham of Birmingham stepped to the lectern, saluted Wallace, and announced that it was his “sad duty” to command the governor to move aside. Wallace moved from behind the podium to return Graham’s salute, and then finished his statement before finally stepping away from the door of the auditorium.
With the governor out of the way, Malone and Hood were escorted into the building to register for school. But George Wallace had his moment. The “stand in the schoolhouse door” was in reality nothing more than what would become known to later generations of political observers as a “photo op,” but it fulfilled his inaugural pledge. More importantly, it made him a national political figure.
Passing up the bait
That night, Kennedy went on television to address the nation. Wallace might have scored some points with the political constituency he was seeking to cultivate, but the president was quick to marginalize the effect of the governor’s actions, even among the students at the university Wallace sought to “protect” from the perils of integration.
“This afternoon,” Kennedy said from the Oval Office, “following a series of threats and defiant statements, the presence of Alabama National Guardsmen was required on the University of Alabama to carry out the final and unequivocal order of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Alabama. That order called for the admission of two clearly qualified young Alabama residents who happened to have been born Negro.
“That they were admitted peacefully on the campus is due in good measure to the conduct of the students of the University of Alabama, who met their responsibilities in a constructive way.”
Kennedy’s observation about the students at Alabama was incisive — perhaps unwittingly so. The comment about the response among students to Wallace’s attempted provocations spoke to broader changes that were taking place in the culture of Birmingham and the state as a result of questions about basic American freedoms that were explicitly and implicitly raised by the Civil Rights Movement.
The years 1961-63 were transformative. Progressively — through the Freedom Riders, the riot and deaths at Ole Miss, the change of government in Birmingham followed by Project C and Bull Connor’s violent response, and the integration of the University of Alabama (as well as the enrollment without incident the same day of NASA mathematician Dave McGlathery at the university’s Huntsville campus) — the years of nonviolent demonstrations met by police abuse, all shadowed by the specter of federal intervention, revealed evidence of a change in attitude among growing numbers of white citizens.
Going back even further, to February 1956, when a young black woman named Autherine Lucy began attending classes at Alabama, the change in attitude over the next seven years becomes apparent. Lucy was confronted by hostility, as students and assorted townspeople pelted her with eggs and university officials expelled her for her own safety.
By June 1963, the university had a different administration, under the leadership of Dr. Frank Rose. It had a student government president, Donald Stewart (later to serve as one of Alabama’s U.S. senators), who worked with the administration to prepare students for integration, among other things, by holding meetings in dormitories and in each fraternity and sorority house on campus.
By the time of Wallace’s “stand,” students were so organized that volunteers cleared the campus grounds of bottles, cans, rocks and anything else that might be picked up and used as a projectile. The local business community and the Tuscaloosa police were fully committed to a peaceful (i.e., uneventful) admittance of black students at the university. There was a collective understanding that violence would tarnish the reputation of the university, perhaps beyond repair.
As that related specifically to the students, President Kennedy was correct — Wallace had offered the bait, but they were not hooked. By and large, the governor’s sideshow at Foster Auditorium was met with yawns, not enthusiasm.
The pace of change
To be sure, the maturity and good sense displayed by the administration and students at Alabama were only a pause in the violence and death. Despite the hard-won changes in Alabama and elsewhere, the Klan and its segregationist brethren remained determined to maintain the separation of the races at all costs.
Two years after the integration of the university, Tuscaloosa would erupt in violence when its public schools were integrated. Meanwhile, back in Birmingham, the cessation of violence after the federal intervention in May only turned up the heat on what would be a long, hot summer that would end with unfathomable tragedy.
Still, change — in attitudes, in awareness, in society — was afoot. And it would not be stopped.