Heisman Award Does Not Hide Alabama’s Past
By George Curry | Published 12/17/2009
University of Alabama running back Mark Ingram was awarded the Heisman Trophy Saturday night (Dec. 12), the first Crimson Tide player to ever win college football’s most prestigious honor. And that is saying a lot when you consider such ’Bama greats as Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, Lee Roy Jordan, Ozzie Newsome and Cornelius Bennett
The sophomore sensation’s on-field exploits would have never been recognized at the awards ceremony in New York, certainly not as a representative of the Crimson Tide, had it not been for the efforts of Vivian Malone and James Hood, two African Americans who defied Gov. George C. Wallace’s famous 1963 “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” at Foster Auditorium.
As Ingram and his undefeated teammates prepare for the national championship game against the University of Texas on January 7, school officials are pondering how best to pay proper homage to Malone and Hood in a renovated Foster Auditorium. In Tuscaloosa, Ala., my hometown, the past has finally caught up with the present.
Desegregating the state’s top tax-supported university was no easy task.
Autherine Lucy was the first African-American student to enroll in the University of Alabama. She graduated from Miles College near Birmingham in 1952. While attending the historically Black college, a friend, Pollie Myers, suggested that they apply to the all-White University of Alabama for grad school. Anticipating a protracted struggle, they sought help from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and were assigned legendary lawyers Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley and Arthur Shores.
One June 29, 1955, a federal court issued an order prohibiting the University of Alabama from rejecting the two applicants based on their race. The ruling was appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court. On Oct. 19, 1955, the High Court ordered the university to admit Lucy and her Miles classmate, Pollie Myers Hudson.
The university’s board of trustees rejected Hudson’s application, purportedly for reasons related to her conduct and marital record. But it accepted Lucy, who enrolled on Feb. 3, 1956. On the third day of classes, however, an angry mob stormed the campus and university officials expelled Lucy, saying they could not assure her safety. (She would return decades later to earn her master’s degree in elementary education).
A second major attempt to desegregate the University of Alabama in 1963 also required the intervention of the federal government. After Lucy was expelled, hundreds of African Americans applied to the University of Alabama but were rejected. In 1963, however, three African Americans with stellar credentials – Vivian Malone, Dave McGlathery and James Hood – applied. After a federal judge ordered them admitted, only Malone and Hood decided to attend.
Segregationist Gov. Wallace, whose inaugural speech advocated “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever,” decided to he would “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” to prevent the enrollment of Malone and Hood, who were accompanied by Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.
In a carefully orchestrated move – and by secret arrangement with federal officials – Wallace stood in the door of Foster Auditorium and gave a states’ rights speech deploring action taken by the “central government.” Malone and Hood were driven back to their dorms. Katzenbach placed a call to President John F. Kennedy, who federalized the Alabama National Guard. Katzenbach returned hours later with Malone and Hood. When Wallace again attempted to block their entry, General Henry Graham, the commander of the Alabama National Guard, told Wallace: “Sir, it is my sad duty to ask you to step aside under the orders of the president of the United States.” A silent Wallace moved out of the way and Malone and Hood proceeded inside to register.
I had just completed my sophomore year at Druid High School and was overjoyed. After being forced to ride on segregated city buses, attend segregated schools and being directed to separate water fountains and toilets marked “White” and “Colored” in my hometown, the federal government had finally confronted segregationists in Alabama and sent them a powerful message: Brown v. Board of Education was the law of the land and even white supremacists would have to obey the law.
The University of Alabama is in the process or renovating Foster Auditorium, which has been mostly empty in recent years. President Robert Witt said the $15 million renovation will include a Malone-Hood civil rights memorial plaza in front of the building. But many people – black and white – are unimpressed with the plans. After receiving a chilly reception, Witt said the university welcomes comments from the public.
It got a very public comment from the Tuscaloosa News, which said the architectural rendering does “Nothing to speak to its purpose.” The Nov. 8 editorial said the most complimentary thing that can be said about the proposed civil rights plaza is that “it fits in well with the shrubbery.”
Some have suggested creating a civil rights museum inside of Foster Auditorium. Others favor memorializing the 1963 stand-off with life-size bronze statues featuring Malone, Hood, Wallace and Katzenbach. My preference is that the university do both.
Mark Ingram, an African American from Flint, Mich., has now surpassed all of the stars on the storied Alabama football teams by bringing home the Heisman Trophy. The University of Alabama should try to score some style points with well-meaning whites and people who look like Ingram by erecting a fitting memorial to Autherine Lucy, Vivian Malone, James Hood and the millions of Blacks who were prevented from attending the University of Alabama for more than 125 years. If it doesn’t, its antiseptic civil rights memorial will amount to nothing but another Stand in the Schoolhouse Door without the drama.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.)