Few political gestures have had such longevity.
On June 11, 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace did as he had vowed and attempted to block the integration of the University of Alabama campus. While he was unsuccessful in his “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” as this episode is called, Wallace managed something even more sinister: He slandered an entire state, burying it under a stinking pile of bad press.
It was understood by both Wallace and federal officials in Tuscaloosa to ensure the enrollment of James Hood and Vivian Malone that the governor could not prevent the integration of the university.
This didn’t stop the politically ambitious Wallace, who had been elected on a segregationist platform, from trying to make a little political hay. “The unwelcome, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama today of the might of the central government offers a frightful example of oppression of the rights, privileges and sovereignty of this state by officers of the federal government,” Wallace said as the cameras rolled.
And then, as had been scripted by state and federal officials, Wallace stepped aside. The impression that Alabama was a state governed by bigots was made, however. News of Wallace’s stance spread across the world. Removing this stain would take decades. Lives would be lost. Opportunities squandered. Prosperity diminished. Precious time wasted. All of this to serve the aims of a demagogue. Wallace doesn’t bear all the responsibility for this shame, but his schoolhouse stand left a very deep and embarrassing impression.
Alabama today is not the apartheid state it was in 1963. That much should be clear to the rest of the world. Through hard work and struggle, Alabama has imperfectly yet steadily worked to improve its image. On Tuesday, the University of Alabama hosted a commemoration of the integration of its student body.
A lasting lesson applies to politicians who would use symbols and cheap ploys to gain political points. Our advice is to be careful. Your moment of political grandstanding may have lasting and awful implications.