What the ‘Schoolhouse Door’ meant for the Alabama Crimson Tide


The ‘Schoolhouse Door’ event was 55 years ago. Let’s look back at what it meant for Crimson Tide sports and the state of Alabama.

On a scorching June day in 1963, Crimson Tide sports and the state of Alabama was forever changed for the better. On that June 11th, an orchestrated event allowed George Wallace to save face and the United States Justice Department to do its job.

After the Wallace grandstand, Vivian Malone and James Hood entered Foster Auditorium and registered as students at the University of Alabama. They were not the first African-American students to enroll in Tuscaloosa. Autherine Lacy had done so in 1956. The backlash against Lucy was unrelenting. She feared for her safety and within days withdrew from school.

The ‘schoolhouse door stand’ is so well known, many Crimson Tide fans either do not want or do not need a reminder. Yet, time fades and reshapes the collective memory. Lessons learned are not always lessons retained.

A brief review of the history

In 1956, when graduate student Autherine Lucy integrated the University of Alabama for three days, the belligerent atmosphere on campus caused her to fear for her life. Outside one of her classrooms, a mob of students and Tuscaloosa area citizens threw eggs at her and shouted hateful taunts. The response from the University of Alabama was to bar her from attending classes, saying her presence created an unsafe situation for her on campus. After a filed complaint from her lawyers, the University permanently expelled her for false allegations in the complaint. Lucy returned to the campus in the early 1990’s and earned a master’s degree.

In 1963, the University no longer opposed integration. Alabama Governor, George Wallace, still staunchly fought to maintain segregation. The United States Justice Department took charge of ensuring Vivian Malone and James Hood would be allowed to enroll in Tuscaloosa.

Despite his bluff and bluster, there was little George Wallace could do to prevent the inevitable. An agreement was reached between Wallace and the Justice Department allowing Wallace to save face. Wallace blocked entry at the doors of Foster Auditorium and denied access to the student registration area for Malone and Hood.

Deputy Assistant Attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, with the support of the Alabama National Guard, ordered Wallace to step aside.

Malone became the first African-American to graduate from the University of Alabama in 1965. James Hood left school after two months. He returned in 1992 and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Alabama in 1997.

What integration meant to the University of Alabama and Crimson Tide sports

Integration of the school did not quickly lead to integration of Crimson Tide sports’ teams.  In 1967, Paul Bryant allowed two African-American young men to try out for the football team. Neither made the team. Bryant told them he admired their courage.

Bryant was a pragmatist when facing social issues. In the 1950’s, as head coach of the University of Kentucky, he asked and was denied the opportunity to integrate the football team. His patience with the race issue later cost the Crimson Tide a national championship in 1966. His all-white 1966 team was clearly the nation’s best but were denied the honor by poll voters.

When Bryant hired C.M. Newton as head basketball coach in 1968, Bryant gave Newton permission to recruit African-American athletes. In 1970, Wendell Hudson was the first African-American athlete to compete in a major sport for the Crimson Tide. The courtside verbal abuse directed at Hudson during road games was vicious. Newton appealed to AD’s at other SEC schools to seat traveling Alabama fans directly behind the Tide bench as a buffer.

A few short years later, Newton would field a starting five, all from Alabama, and all African-American. John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson were the first African-American men to integrate the Crimson Tide football program in 1971.

For Crimson Tide fans born after 1971, it is difficult to imagine an Alabama football or basketball team without African-American athletes. Over the last forty-plus years, African-American young men and women have contributed mightily to the success of Crimson Tide athletics. In Tuscaloosa, rooting for crimson and white has nothing to do with the color of skin.

What it meant beyond the world of sports

The integration of the University of Alabama in 1963 was a pivot point in the history of the state of Alabama. What was before was never to return. Slowly, sometimes bitterly, white Alabamians cast aside hate and replaced it with tolerance. The pace of the changing attitudes was aided by what was, at first, a forced amount of contact between the races.

Some of that contact evolved in the shared bonds of rooting for Crimson Tide sports. It became difficult to hate someone on Monday, who you had cheered for on Saturday. Friendship and respect grew, overwhelming old fears.

On the day Autherine Lucy fled the campus for safety, the Tuscaloosa News reported members of the Tuscaloosa, African-American community took her to Reverend Thomas Linton’s barbershop. Inside the shop, residue from the thrown eggs was washed from her face and hair.

Years later, in response to a question of the significance of June 1963 schoolhouse door event, Reverend Linton said,

"It was a meaningful event for us because it meant the Governor could no longer control the school. It showed him that he was not in complete control. To us, it was a great thing to see Wallace defeated."

Credit to the University of Alabama

Going back to 1963, the University has worked hard to make amends. Change came slowly but the University of Alabama deserves credit for many achievements toward racial justice. Those achievements began that summer day in 1963. In the fall of 1962, the University of Mississippi experienced tragedy when a riot occurred in response to the enrollment of James Meredith. More than three hundred people were injured. Two people died in the fighting between a mob and U.S. Marshalls, supported by U.S. Army troops.

University of Alabama President, Frank Rose was determined the integration of his school would not lead to bloodshed. The Tuscaloosa News reported on Rose’s precautions.

"UA President Frank Rose had students sign pledges that they would not bring guns to campus. Rose ordered maintenance crews to remove any loose bricks or sticks from around campus. All bottled soft drink machines were replaced with ones that dispensed cups. Students were ordered to abide by a 10 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew."

Thanks to Rose’s efforts and the coordinated support of the Alabama State Police, no violence occurred.

"June 11, 1963, would pass with no bricks thrown, no shots fired. There weren’t any shouts or catcalls as James Hood and Vivian Malone walked into the auditorium."

So much has changed since 1963. George Wallace asked for forgiveness before he died. Yet for some, the struggle for equal rights remains pertinent today. Borrowing words from Dr. Martin Luther King, the arc of the moral universe is long and it bends towards justice, but it does not wipe out history or its residual effects.

Opposing forces met in Tuscaloosa on a June day in 1963. What transpired changed the history of Alabama sports and the attitudes of a state. All for the better.