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Fifty Years Ago: The Stand in the Schoolhouse Door

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013
George Wallace at University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa
George Wallace

Fifty years ago this week, Alabama Governor George Wallace defiantly stood in the schoolhouse door at the and refused to admit Vivian Malone and James Hood because of their race.  NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund (LDF) Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg and legendary LDF lawyer Constance Baker Motley represented the two young African American students and obtained a federal court order granting them admission to the University.  Wallace fought their admission vigorously, and on the day of the students’ registration, set the stage for one of the most dramatic events in civil rights history. 

Vivian Malone and James Hood
Vivian Malone and James Hood

When the students arrived on campus, they were accompanied by a federalized National Guard and Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s Department of Justice.  As Wallace literally stood in the doorway of Foster Auditorium, the main building on campus, Katzenbach approached Wallace and read a presidential proclamation ordering that the students be admitted to the university.  Wallace stated that he “refuse[d] to willingly submit to illegal usurpation of power by the Central Government.”  Katzenbach replied: “These students will remain on this campus.  They will register today.  They will go to school tomorrow.”  After further negotiations, the students proceeded onto campus and registered.  Vivian Malone became the first African American to graduate from the University of Alabama.

Constance Baker Motley
LDF Lawyer Constance Baker Motley

Today, the front line in the battle for equal educational opportunity in higher education has shifted, both literally and figuratively.  While access to higher education institutions is no longer limited by legally sanctioned racial exclusion, meaningful opportunity in higher education still takes on a decidedly racial dimension.  And, instead of Alabama, the most recent battlegrounds have included California, Michigan and now Texas – where the University of Texas at Austin’s efforts to promote racial diversity are being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin – the first federal court challenge to higher education diversity policies since the Supreme Court upheld the University of Michigan’s policy in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003. 

A wealth of research has demonstrated how diversity benefits all students. It is therefore imperative that colleges and universities be permitted to ensure our students learn from, work with, and live alongside different groups of people. And the University of Texas at Austin, through its holistic admissions process, appropriately aims to educate the future leaders of Texas and the nation on a diverse campus.

Vivian Malone
Vivian Malone

Ironically, the University of Texas was the stage for one of LDF’s earliest higher education cases, Sweatt v. Painter (1950).  Nearly two decades before Vivian Malone and James Hood sought admission to the University of Alabama, Heman Marion Sweatt was denied admission to the law school at the University of Texas.  The victory in his case made possible later victories including Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the successful advocacy at the University of Alabama in 1963.

Like Sweatt, Malone and Hood, the members of the Black Student Alliance at the University of Texas (“BSA”) – LDF’s clients in the Fisher case – have also taken a bold stand.  Despite calls by some for an end to consideration of race to promote opportunity and diversity in higher education, the BSA members and others realize that the need to promote equity remains.  Participating in every stage of the case, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, today’s students are paving the way for the future, even as they stand on the shoulders of giants.