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The Stand in the Schoolhouse Door…. 50 Years Later

Dr. Judy Bonner Speaking
President Bonner speaks with Dr. Sharon Malone and Peggy Wallace Kennedy looking on.

11:30am- A hush falls over the hundreds of delegates gathered in Foster Auditorium as University of Alabama President Dr. Judy Bonner, Dr. Sharon Malone, and Peggy Wallace Kennedy enter the room to begin the program, which is part of the 13th Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage, led by Rep. John Lewis and sponsored by the Faith and Politics Institute. Because this year marks the 50th anniversary of then-Governor George Wallace’s “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” when Vivian Malone and James Hood entered the University as its first African-American students, the group added a visit to UA to its traditional visit to Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma.

Dr. Bonner welcomed the guest speakers and delegates while acknowledging the progress of the University in terms of integration and race relations. She stated that “the University of Alabama’s commitment to courage, change, and progress is unwavering.” She added that currently 4200 African-American are enrolled in the University, making up 12% of student body, while over 14,400 African-Americans have graduated from the University since integration, which started in 1963 with Vivian Malone and James Hood (Autherine Lucy was the first black student to be accepted and enrolled in the UA, but her initial enrollment only lasted 3 days.).

Dr. Sharon Malone, sister of Vivian Malone (and also the wife of US Attorney General Eric Holder), stood with poise that wavered only when she stated that this was her first time to attend the commemmoration of that infamous day without her sister. She spoke about being a 6th generation Alabamian and how significant her sister’s actions were in her life, but also how she is able to relate with how their parents must have felt to have Vivian to attend the University in such dangerous times, as she now has a daughter the same age that Vivian was upon enrollment. Dr. Malone discussed how she now understands the gravity of her sister’s decision to attend the University of Alabama, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had recently written his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Governor Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door. That same night, President Kennedy addressed the nation concerning civil rights, just hours before Medgar Evers was assassinated.

Yet, Vivian Jones remained at the University of Alabama, where she graduated in 1965, a monumental moment even amid the issued bomb and death threats. (Bloody Sunday had just occurred two months prior.) Dr. Malone shared the story of her sister’s first day of school. She said that Vivian told her she’d walked into the classroom, took her seat, and everyone began to leave. Only she and the professor remained, and he taught her just as if the class was full. She said that Vivian recounted being surrounded by people that were nice to her but unwilling to be seen associating with her in public.

In closing, Dr. Malone shared a letter written by President Kennedy. She also stated that race, poverty, and other issues remain but that progress is being made, as for the first time since 1963, there’s “a brother in the White House and a brother leading the Justice Department.” The audience laughed at her small shout-out to her husband while applauding as Dr. Malone took her seat.

Dr. Bonner then introduced Peggy Wallace Kennedy, the daughter of former Governor George Wallace, who recounted the day that her father took the stance for which he was most known throughout the rest of his life. She was 13 at the time and home with her mother. Kennedy describes her father as a man hidden in a gray mist of contradictions. She talked about the various legacies he left behind that remained marred by that one fateful day, in which’s shadow the Wallace family has lived ever since. Kennedy talked about the looming cloud of confusion that remained as her father never explained why he’d taken the actions he’d done, but she spoke of the grace demonstrated by Vivian Jones and James Malone and stated that she now stands in the place where her father once stood as a testament of change. Before taking her seat Kennedy said that “to too many Americans, the school house doors (of opportunity, justice, etc.) remain closed” and that “we deserve a better government, not a bitter government.” Then, as she approached her seat, where she and Malone embraced.

Both of these women offered unique views into the events surrounding that day, as family members of those who are recorded in our history books. They shared the stories of their loved ones as they knew them, as a sister and as a father, but then also placing themselves into empathetic roles. Kennedy spoke with pride about having her son to walk with her through those doors where her father once stood (which are now on display at Foster Auditiorium) and for him to not have to question her answers and receive no explanation as she once did with her father. Both Malone and Kennedy also praised The University of Alabama for working to overcome the attached stigma and for its advancements in integration and social relations. However, they both also alluded to other progress that must be made for the benefit of the United States as a whole.

Keeping with the pace of acknowledging progress, following Mrs. Kennedy’s address, the program coordinator introduced Congresswoman Terri Sewell, who presented Dr. Bonner with a plaque and honored her for becoming the first female president at the University of Alabama.

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