Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

1963

Desegregation of the University of Alabama

After a long period of litigation, the final campaign battle to end racial segregation in American higher education took place on the campus of the University of Alabama. This momentous event led to open enrollment for minority students among the majority of universities and colleges in the deep South.

Despite several mandates from the Federal government to open the University's enrollment to qualified black students, the governor of the State of Alabama, George Wallace, remained defiant in his stance against any form of racial desegregation. In defending his stance, his primary argument against federal intervention in the state's racial policies rested on the issue of "state's rights."

In September 1963, the stalemate between the state and federal governments over the admission of six black students to the University of Alabama finally ended when President Kennedy ordered the state militia to forcefully safeguard the students' entry into the university. As a final act of defiance, the Governor stood in the doorway of the University to prevent the student's passage. This symbolic gesture was to no avail and the University finally became racially integrated.

The final result of this incident not only eliminated segregationist policies in higher education, it also established a very clear role for the federal government as the final and ultimate authority in the area of educational equality nationwide.

Part II

However, the events which took place at the University of Alabama in 1963 were not the beginnings of a movement toward egalitarian policies in U.S. education. Rather, they were merely the culmination of a series of events which began during the previous decade. The legal milestone was set by the US Supreme Court in 1954. That year, with its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court determined that "separate" was not "equal" in public school and higher education.

The courts, however, were not setting the agenda for social change as much as they were responding to the social currents of the time. The great civil rights and equal rights movements that received so much notoriety during the 1960s were already set in motion during previous decades. When Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, he already had a long career of social activism behind him that initiated in the 1950s and was part of a larger movement that included leaders such as Martin Luther King on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. In fact, by 1964, the stage was set for President Johnson (who was not friendly to the civil rights movement as a senator) to sign the Economic Opportunity Act. This act was designed to give inner city communities, which were historically poor, disenfranchised and composed primarily by racial minorities, direct control over their public school system and their children's education. This also increased funding for these schools and gave parents authority over the formulation of the school curriculum, the administration of the schools, and the hiring and firing of teachers. By 1968, one segment of the population was already reacting to the liberalism and radicalism of the previous decade and the result was a conservative presidential administration under Nixon, who put an end to this program by cutting off its funding.

Nonetheless, racial issues had become the only "class" issues in America that were validated by public consciousness. They did not dissolve with the retrenchment of the political right. Racial equality was still an unresolved and volatile issue that continued to take center stage in the nation's political forum. Education was the primary staging ground of the battle for racial justice. As a result, in 1971, desegregation resurfaced as a political issue and the answer this time was the forced bussing of children to integrate the nation's public schools.

The educational policies which emerged during this combative era were eventually brought into question at the national level when affirmative action met its legal challenge in 1978 with the case of UC Regents v Bakke. The Supreme Court made its decision on this controversial case without settling the issue with a clear judicial resolution, voting to allow the plaintiff to circumvent the University of California's affirmative action policies without declaring them constitutionally unlawful.

Source:

Culpepper, Clark E. The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation's Last Stand at the University of Alabama. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Prepared by Esteban Martorell (UCLA)

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