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The Painful Legacy of 1963

Fifty years ago, Alabama governor George Wallace stood on the steps of the capital in Montgomery and proclaimed "segregation forever." His defiance set in motion some of the most horrifying episodes of the civil rights era whose effects continue to be felt today.

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Alabama Governor George Wallace gives his inauguration speech on Jan. 14, 1963.
Alabama Governor George Wallace gives his inauguration speech on Jan. 14, 1963.

There was no mistaking the message delivered by Alabama's 46th governor in his inaugural address on Jan. 14, 1963. With a fury untempered by the freezing temperatures, George C. Wallace vowed to stand against the federal government with an unyielding commitment to oppose integration. The rhetorical "line in the dust" he drew was far more than political boilerplate; it set the stage for one of the most painful years in the state’s history.

In the twelve months that followed Wallace’s segregationist call to arms, the state would be roiled by some the most dramatic and horrifying events of the civil rights movement. These events would indelibly sear the image of the state on the conscience of the nation. A half-century further on we have only begun to understand their enormous impact – both for good and for ill.

● In April and May, the Birmingham protests take place. These would culminate with the authorities using police dogs and fire hoses against protesters, including children. An agreement to integrate the city’s businesses brings the confrontations to an end on May 10. That night a pair of bombings targeting civil rights leaders spark rioting across the city fueled in part by state troopers sent by Wallace under the pretense of "restoring order."

● In June, less than a month after the situation in Birmingham has stabilized, Wallace re-ignites controversy by physically blocking the admission of two black students to the University of Alabama. While Alabama avoids the rioting that occurred the year prior at Ole Miss, "the stand in the schoolhouse door" becomes permanently associated with the school and its segregationist past.

● In late August a quarter of a million people participate in the March on Washington, marking a galvanizing moment in the civil rights movement. Days later, Wallace enters a showdown with the federal courts over the integration of Alabama’s primary and secondary schools. The court orders the schools to open and Wallace responds by directing the state to facilitate the transfer of all white students non-integrated schools.

● On Sept. 15 the violence in Alabama comes to a horrific crescendo when a bomb blast destroys part of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killing four young girls preparing for Sunday school. Two other black teenagers are shot to death later that day in separate incidents. Just a week prior, Wallace had told The New York Times that to stop integration all Alabama needed a "few first-class funerals."

As the image of the state became more and more troubled there was one undeniable point of pride for Alabamians – Crimson Tide football. Former Alabama player Paul W. Bryant had returned to Tuscaloosa in 1958 to take over a program at its nadir. Tide fans expected him to turn their team's gridiron fortunes around and The Bear did not disappoint. Just four years later Alabama went undefeated and claimed the national championship.

The Crimson Tide then showed no signs of slowing down after reaching that achievement. In 1962 Alabama came within a two-point conversion of repeating. On New Year’s Day 1963 Alabama pounded Oklahoma 17-0 in the Orange Bowl with President John F. Kennedy in attendance. The Crimson Tide had, without a doubt, returned to its place among the sport’s elite programs.

Throughout it all Bryant had been able to quietly break long standing racial barriers using his leverage both within college football and the state’s power structure. He was very well aware that winning national championships meant Alabama would have to play integrated teams. In his second season in Tuscaloosa Bryant set that important precedent by arranging the Tide to play Penn State in the 1959 Liberty Bowl. Although the game marked the end of Alabama's unwritten policy against playing integrated teams the outcry over the contest was minimal.

In that situation, Bryant benefited from a period of relative calm in the state over the issue of segregation. The controversy over the Montgomery bus boycott – which succeeded – and the admission of Autherine Lucy into the University of Alabama – which did not – had given way to an uneasy truce on the issue. That state of affairs ended with the arrival of the Freedom Riders in 1961.

The nation was aghast at images of the riders assaulted by mobs in Annistion, Birmingham and Montgomery while state officials stood by. The violence polarized the issue leaving no middle ground for compromise or conciliation.

Throughout all of this Bryant succeeded in distancing his program from the terrible events being broadcast nationally on the nightly news. The Oklahoma team that played against Alabama in the 1963 Orange Bowl boasted one black player, guard Ed McQuarters, but there was almost no mention of that fact in the lead-up to the game.

Still, it was painfully obvious that Alabama's famed football team remained a staunchly segregated institution. Although President Kennedy attended the game in Miami and visited with the Oklahoma team in the locker room, he avoided the Crimson Tide squad as well as former political ally, outgoing Alabama Governor John Patterson.

And as turmoil of the civil rights struggle engulfed the state so too would it affect Crimson Tide football as well. Worst of all, the integration of Alabama athletics had been set back years.

Even if Bryant wished to publicly oppose Wallace’s policies and move forward with integration, he found himself embroiled in his own controversy in 1963. The day after defeating the Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, Bryant had filed suit against Atlanta sportswriter Furman Bisher and The Saturday Evening Post for a story published the previous year alleging he used "brutal" coaching methods and condoned the injury of opposing players.

That legal battle would only intensify in March when the magazine published an expose accusing Bryant and Georgia Athletic Director Wally Butts of "fixing" a game several years prior. The entire off-season was overshadowed by the scandal and the ensuing trial in Atlanta. While the jury’s verdict in late August vindicated the Alabama coach, it would prove physically and emotionally draining to him and his program.

While Alabama football still performed very well in 1963 the 9-2 record was a step back for the Crimson Tide. That one of the loses was to bitter intrastate rival Auburn made it all the worse. The program rebounded to claim national titles in 1964 and 1965 but Byant's ability to divorce his program from the issue of racial inequality had been shattered.

When the stigma of events in the state during 1963 was rekindled with the violence in Selma two years later. It was no longer possible to ignore the absence of black players on the football team that represented the state. The issue was undoubtedly a factor weighing on poll voters who passed over the undefeated Crimson Tide squad for the national championship.

Ironically it would be Wallace's unwavering defiance and the violent opposition by segregationists inflamed by his rhetoric that opened the doors to change. In response to the events in Alabama during 1963, President Kennedy introduced the Civil Rights Act that prohibited discrimination by state governments and in public places. Tragically, it would be Kennedy's assassination in November of the year that provided his successor, Lyndon Johnson, the political momentum to see its passage.

The Civil Rights Act, along with a battery of federal court decisions handed down in its wake, would eventually provide the means to overturn discriminatory policies and practices at the state and local level. These actions, in turn, would fuel Wallace's anti-federal stance and eventually launch him on a surprisingly effective run at the presidency. The controversy over this issue continues unabated even today.

For Alabama the stigma of hatred, violence and racism would abide. As Crimson Tide football remained at the forefront of the sport as well as inescapably all-white, it carried that stigma as well. Even worse, efforts to integrate the team were hobbled by the anti-integration stance of state officials. It would not be until Sept. 12, 1971 that a black athlete would don the crimson and white to represent Alabama in a regular-season varsity football game making Alabama one of the very last teams in college football to do so.

Which leads me to a personal note. As a fan of Alabama football I firmly believe that it is my responsibility to grapple with this difficult aspect of the program's history. As much as I take a certain amount of pride in those trophies and titles earned by the players on the gridiron, I am also required to insure the difficult episodes of Crimson Tide history are preserved as well. And none are more important than integration.

For the past year or so, I have been working with historian Andrew Doyle of Winthrop University on a project examining the integration of the University of Alabama athletics. We firmly believe that the football program was not transformed by a single game, or a single person or any pat cause that fits a simple narrative. Instead it was a long difficult ordeal marked by advances and setbacks that took place in the context of the civil rights movement.

My absence from Roll Bama Roll over the past season has been entirely due to this effort. I knew going into the season my posting would have to be pared back but between my paying freelance work and this project I simply have not had the time to contribute to the site. My sole contributions this season were precisely because I had done research on those particular games. So with Todd stepping down I feel it is best to make my departure official as well.

The response to my work on Roll Bama Roll these past five years is what fuels my passion to tell this story. I know that there are Alabama fans out there who want to learn about this part of Crimson Tide history and, more importantly, deserve the opportunity. Your comments, emails and tweets have been far more than motivation; they underscore the obligation I have to see this thing to completion.

Whoever takes over here at Roll Bama Roll deserves the opportunity to make this site their own without the interference of the "old guard" such as myself. I will still post occasionally on Football Study Hall and Team Speed Kills as I find topics in my research that deserve a wider audience. And I will keep providing tidbits on the early history of the program at Remember the Rose Bowl.

Thank y’all for a fantastic run and, as always, Roll Tide.

If you are interested in reading more about the civil rights era in Alabama and how it affected Crimson Tide football there are a number of great books I can recommend:

  • The Missing Ring. This is Keith Dunnavant’s book on Alabama's 1966 national championship that wasn't. Dunnavant does more than focus on the controversy over Notre Dame’s infamous tie, he gives the context in which the Alabama team was perceived due to the turmoil in the state during that era. This is a must-read for every Crimson Tide fan.
  • The Schoolhouse Door. The definitive tome the integration of the University of Alabama. E. Culpepper Clark not only details the events at Foster Auditorium in June 1963 but also provides a detailed account of Autherine Lucy’s failed attempt to integrate the school in 1956. Football is not overlooked but it’s at the periphery of this account.
  • Benching Jim Crow. The most complete account of the integration of collegiate sports in the United States yet written. Charles Martin’s book details the integration of the basketball and football program of every school in the ACC, Southwest and Southeastern conference. He also provides a comprehensive look at how segregation policies emerged in university athletics.
  • College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era. A look at college football in the 1950s and the efforts to integrate several programs including Alabama and LSU. This is very much an academic work but Kurt Kemper provides what is easily the most detailed account of the integration of Alabama’s football program.
  • Cradle of Freedom. One of the best books on the civil rights era in Alabama. Frye Gaillard covers the whole of the movement from the Montgomery Bus boycott to Selma march. It’s a comprehensive overview that is extremely readable, particularly for those who aren't overly familiar with the subject matter. He touches on the integration of Alabama football at the very end.
  • George Wallace: American Populist. An excellent biography of Wallace that reveals the painful contradictions the man embodied. As easy as it is to vilify Wallace it doesn't do much to understand the reasons for his popularity in Alabama (as well as nationally). Stephan Lesher's book sheds some light on the man, his motivations and how he held onto power for so long.
  • But for Birmingham. An academic look at the Birmingham protests.
  • Dividing Lines. An extraordinarily detailed account of Alabama’s civil rights struggle.
  • Bearing the Cross. A biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and the emergence of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
  • Simple Justice. A detailed history of the Brown vs. Board of Education cases.
  • The Politics of Rage. Another very good biography of George Wallace.
  • Patterson for Alabama. A biography of Alabama Governor John Patterson.
  • Taming the Storm. A biography of Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr.
  • Bus Ride for Justice. A biography of Civil Rights attorney Fred Gray.