By now, President Trump will have visited Minneapolis. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey stated ahead of his visit: “While there is no legal mechanism to prevent the president from visiting, his message of hatred will never be welcome in Minneapolis.”
For those too young to remember, the United States in 1963 was divided deeply over the growing civil rights movement — a division that later widened with the war in Vietnam. And in May 1963, I was a 17-year-old high school junior in Sheffield, Alabama. On May 18, I arrived at the Tennessee Valley Authority pavilion in nearby Muscle Shoals three hours before President Kennedy spoke commemorating the 30th anniversary of the founding of TVA. I huddled with high school classmates on the front row to await the president.
Shortly after noon, Gov. George Wallace accompanied Kennedy onto the platform where local dignitaries, along with Sens. Lister Hill and John Sparkman, stood respectfully. My classmates and I cheered and waved. I recall my amazement that JFK’s hair was a light reddish brown — black and white TV missed such subtleties. The president turned his back to the gleeful crowd as he individually greeted guests on the platform. Each time the president shook hands, Gov. Wallace, standing behind him and facing the crowd, raised both arms with fingers raised in a “V.” The crowd roared in approval.
Yet other subtleties were at work.
In just 24 days, on June 11, 1963, the University of Alabama became the last major state university to drop its racial barriers. Most of the crowd greeting President Kennedy steadfastly supported Gov. Wallace in his vow to block federally mandated desegregation by physically standing in the door of Foster Auditorium to prevent students Vivian J. Malone and James A. Hood from registering. The governor also dubbed President Kennedy a “military dictator.”
My classmates and I had been thrilled to see our president. Six months and four days later, on Nov. 22, we listened on the school intercom as Walter Cronkite’s cracking voice announced, “President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.” Everyone in class wept.
As confrontation over desegregating the state’s flagship university loomed just months earlier, University of Alabama President Frank A. Rose and Vice President Jefferson Bennett flew to Washington to meet privately with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The next morning, during breakfast at Robert Kennedy’s Hickory Hills estate in suburban McLean, Jeff Bennett told Robert Kennedy that Wallace planned to call out the Alabama National Guard. Kennedy reacted with alarm, but Rose assured him this was not to oppose desegregation. Wallace was also mobilizing the state troopers and sheriff’s deputies to keep the peace on campus. Bennett also warned that bringing in Army troops from nearby Ft. Benning might exacerbate the situation. President Rose suggested it would be better if President Kennedy federalized the still all-white Alabama National Guard. The attorney general quipped, “Let’s go see Jack.” The trio left for the White House.
An hour later, in the Oval Office, Rose ran the suggestion by President Kennedy. Fearing a repeat of riots like those at the University of Mississippi in October 1962, President Kennedy suggested postponing Alabama’s desegregation till January 1965. Rose assured Kennedy there would be no riots and that Wallace was committed to a peaceful resolution. President Kennedy turned to his brother: “Bobby, what do you think?” There was no hesitation: “Jack, if Frank says ‘no riots,’ you can take it to the bank.”
On June 11, 1963, Gov. Wallace, fulfilling a campaign promise, stood defiantly in the door of Foster Auditorium symbolically blocking desegregation. That afternoon, the already registered students returned supported by the federalized Alabama National Guard to symbolically “open the schoolhouse door.” Gov. Wallace stepped aside.
Despite their political disagreements, Alabamans treated their president with grace and civility on May 18, 1963. That spirit of unity and grace contributed to making for the peaceful desegregation of a campus located only a mile from Ku Klux Klan imperial headquarters in downtown Tuscaloosa. We could use more of that civility today.