We have made it! All 101 things to love about Alabama. Football arrives tomorrow.
So, we’ll wrap up this winding offseason journey with probably the most important thing Alabama has ever produced. I didn’t set out to make this a ranked list. But, you’d be hard-pressed to find another topic that is as deserving to be No. 1, because there is no greater association with the state than the special place in American history where lies its Civil Rights movement. This epochal ground zero changed the fabric of American life, and inspired and changed the lives of millions across the globe.
I will apologize for this truncated history. There is no way to do justice to all of the events, people, places and moments that the state produced. But I shall try to take a snapshot of a past — a past that is not as distant as you’d sometimes believe, nor as remote as some would hope for.
- Martin Luther King Jr. becomes pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. The church is a powerful symbol — it was founded in former slave pens off the Alabama River.
- December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refuses to yield her seat on the Montgomery bus and is arrested. The arrest kicks off a highly publicized boycott that brings the national spotlight on segregation. It doesn’t matter that hers was not the spontaneous act of an inspired citizen: Parks was a well-known civil rights activist who frequently worked with Edgar Nixon and the local NCAAP. At great risk to herself, the telegenic 42-year-old seamstress volunteered to be the face of the movement.
- In the wake of the bus boycott King, Nixon and Rev. Abernathy founded the Montgomery Improvement Association, with Dr. King as its leader. He was just 26 years old. Three months later, Dr. King’s home would be firebombed for the first time.
- In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled Montgomery’s segregated busing scheme unconstitutional. Later that year, Autherine Lucy made her first unsuccessful attempt integrate the University of Alabama.
- December 21, 1956, after a full year of boycotts, Dr. King and Rosa Parks board the first fully-integrated public bus in Montgomery.
- In 1957, a group of black southern pastors founded the Southern Christian Leadership Council, which becomes pivotal in the civil rights battle. Among them include Rev. Ralph Abernathy from Montgomery, Dr. King, Rev. Joseph Lowery from Mobile, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth from Birmingham. Its motto becomes the modus operandi of the civil rights movement: “Not one hair on one head of one person should be harmed.” The civil rights movement would become one of the largest non-violent revolutions in history, and its pacifism created a blueprint for enacting broader, lasting changes throughout the world.
- In 1961, the Freedom Riders began their trips in Alabama, raising awareness of and protesting segregated transportation policies. The Freedom Riders were attacked in Anniston, Birmingham, and again at the Greyhound station in Montgomery. They were ultimately successful, however. Later that year Congress’ Interstate Commerce Committee invalidated segregation in transportation.
- In 1963, George Wallace rides into the Governor’s mansion on a wave of anti-integration sentiment, making his defiant “Segregation now...” speech. It becomes one of the most defiant, oppositional 62 seconds in American history.
- Later that year, Wallace would attempt to defy a court-order integrating the University of Alabama. As with many of Wallace’s stunts, the “stand in the schoolhouse door” was not a good faith effort. After ratcheting up tensions with the President, which resulted in 100 troops being called to Foster Auditorium, Wallace worked out a backroom deal with US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to comply with the order while still being able to save face with his voters.
- Emboldened by increasingly strident segregation rhetoric, policies, and populist politicians, violence ramps up throughout the south against civil rights leaders, black churches, out-of-state aid workers, and the like. In 1963, the SCLC office in Montgomery would be bombed.
- Later, in 1963, what had been a regional conflagration enraged the nation with the death of four little girls in the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Despite the outrage, it would take two years for four Ku Klux Klan members to be identified: Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Robert Chambliss and Herman Frank Cash. With few witnesses willing to talk and little physical evidence, no charges were filed.
- Again in 1963, James Hood and Vivian Malone Jones become the first black students to enroll at the University of Alabama; Jones the first to earn a degree at the institution. She was awarded a doctorate from Alabama in 2000. James Hood left Alabama after two months; he went to the North to receive his bachelor’s and masters degrees, and he lived and taught there most of his life. In 1995, Hood returned to the University of Alabama and earned his doctoral degree in 1997. He passed away a decade later.
- While imprisoned for protesting in 1963, Dr. King would author his modern masterpiece of polemics, the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, a response to white clergymen who urged prudence and a less forceful response to the conditions faced by blacks in Alabama. In it, he penned the now-immortal words:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
- In January of 1965, Dr. King leads the Selma-to-Montgomery 54-mile march demanding the right to vote, among others and gives an iconic speech on the steps of the state capitol building. The event inspires a series of non-violent rolling-marches throughout the black belt.
- In February of 1965, Alabama state police shoot and kill a 26-year old demonstrator in Marion. This inspired another march on the capitol from Selma-to-Montgomery led by Dr. King and now-Congressman Rev. John Lewis (Troy, Alabama). While attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, protestors are savaged by state and local law enforcement. The images and the event known as Bloody Sunday would prove to be among the most iconic of the era and spurred Congress to act. Six months later, Pres. Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.
- In 1967, the first black walk-ons arrive on the University of Alabama football program. Though desegregated as a university, the football team was not.
- In 1970, Southern Cal’s integrated football program obliterated Alabama at Legion Field. The folklore is that this 42-21 defeat at the hands of Sam Cunningham swept away the last vestiges of segregation; that it was a cunning ruse by Coach Bryant to desegregate the program. That story turned out to be apocryphal, but still lives as a national folk tale.
- In 1971, Alabama football fielded its first fully-integrated, scholarship team.
- From 1963 to 1975, waves of desegregation orders begin to flood the state. To date, there are still 54 open orders to desegregate Alabama public education. The integration was achieved not only through rezoning and development of new schools, but from a variety of busing orders issued between 1965 and 1975. Some school districts have refused to comply with the terms, however: In 2018, Gardendale sought to secede from the Alabama public school system rather than comply with its open desegregation order.
- In 1976, Alabama AG Bill Baxley reopens the case against the four Klansmen for the 16th Street bombing. In 1977, Chambliss is tried and convicted for first degree murder. He would die in prison in 1984. In 1994, alleged co-conspirator Herman Cash died without being charged or tried.
1980s to the Present
- Citing new evidence, in 1997 the FBI reopened the case against Blanton and Cherry for the Birmingham bombing. The pair go on trial in 2000, and Cherry is convicted in 2001. He would die two years later in prison. Blanton is convicted in 2002. The last of the charged bombers, he is still alive. Blanton is eligible for parole in 2021, when he will be almost 90-years-old — his previous attempt at parole was denied.
- Between 1981-1983, Walter Lewis became the first black quarterback to start for the University of Alabama, where his tenure would overlap the final years of his coach, Paul W. Bryant.
- George Wallace died in 1997, repentant of the role he played in the Alabama’s segregation efforts.
- In 2013, on the 50th Anniversary of the Birmingham Church bombing, all four of the girls killed received the Congressional Gold Medal.
- Between 2010 and 2015, nine Alabama public schools would voluntarily agree to desegregation orders, including Montgomery, Bessemer, and even a community college.
- In 2016, Jalen Hurts becomes a Freshman All-American and the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Year. He was the first black Alabama quarterback to be so honored. Two years later, he would prove instrumental in a 2018 SEC Championship; a season where he split playing time with a Samoan All-American quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa. After earning his degree at Alabama, he is now a Heisman favorite at the University of Oklahoma.
It was a tumultuous two decades in the Heart of Dixie, to be sure. Though our history was not always pretty, Alabama was the battleground in a war waged for the heart of a people — one to decide whether this nation could or would live up to the ideals enshrined in its founding documents.
It is a history not too distant in our past, either: I was bused to another district as a child and had black children bused into another school that I attended. Most older Millennials and Gen X folks can recount a similar experience. Nor are the scars completely healed nor the battles completed — just two weeks ago busing again took center stage in the national debate. And if that seems to be a radical sea-change in just this one middle-age lifetime, it is almost impossible for us with the passage of time to imagine what it was like to live during them.
Football season starts tomorrow.