From Opening Doors to Opening Minds
By Dr. George L. Daniels
It was 40 years ago this past June that the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium trying to prevent the enrollment of Vivian Malone and James Hood. His defiant stance against integration won him political acclaim in some circles and disdain in others. Fortunately, his actions did not prevent Malone or Hood from attending the university. Malone went on to complete her studies at the university. Hood later returned to the university to complete his doctorate in the 1990s.
In June, the University of Alabama commemorated the confrontation by honoring 40 pioneers who were instrumental in setting the course for changes that have resulted in an Alabama student body that, as of fall 2002, was 13 percent African American. In January 2002 in this very magazine, a former president of the University of Alabama, Dr. Andrew Sorensen, touted his institution’s innovative strategies and positive record of recruiting minority faculty in an editorial “Opening the Schoolhouse Door” (see Black Issues, Jan. 31, 2002).
As a candidate for a faculty position at the time, I was impressed by his words, but still not convinced. When I came to Tuscaloosa for my job interview in March 2002, I still got long stares and strange looks from Whites at a local restaurant as my soon-to-be White faculty colleagues and I enjoyed breakfast. The head of the search committee was brutally honest in telling me point blank that “racism is alive and well” in Alabama. The same search committee chair challenged me to become more aware of the history of civil rights struggle in this state.
Having read much of The Schoolhouse Door, the history of integration of the university, which ironically was written by Dr. E. Culpepper Clark, my dean, I was challenged to read books such as Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home, which focuses on civil rights events in nearby Birmingham. This summer I continue to do that reading as I’ve spent hours going through newspaper and magazine articles published on the June 1963 incident and years and years of bound copies of The Crimson White, the university’s student newspaper.
Today as the university celebrates the opening of its doors to African Americans, I am celebrating the opening of my own mind. Instead of looking for instances to confirm all that my Black parents and relatives told me about Whites in Alabama, I have witnessed Whites suddenly break out singing old freedom songs and interviewed other Whites who admit to being slow to adjust to the idea of integration at first. The fact that we (Blacks and Whites) can have an open and honest discussion about race is an accomplishment. It signifies that our minds are now finally beginning to open to new ideas.
My arrival at the University of Alabama this past January came four decades after it was successfully integrated. The next 40 years must be focused on a mental integration of our previous conceived notions with the opening of the minds of people about the university and the state of Alabama. The next 40 years must be spent on fostering awareness about the barriers that continue to keep many African Americans outside the higher education system.
As a young assistant professor, I am just now starting a research program that focuses in part on diversity in the field of journalism and mass communication education. Last year, I was part of a research team that studied the role of historically Black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions in diversifying journalism and mass communication education. This year, I am working on a new project that will target four HBCUs for recruiting students to pursue graduate degrees in mass communication.
My office is located in a building that used be the site of Ku Klux Klan meetings and rallies. I was shocked to learn that when I interviewed one of my co-workers, who was a student at the University of Alabama in 1956 when the first Black student to enroll here, Autherine Lucy, was run away by angry crowds.
In 2003, we must remove the white sheets that have clouded our judgment about places like Alabama. While we should never forget what happened, it is even more important to use lessons from the past to teach ourselves and our students what can happen when we get beyond racism and press on for excellence in the future.
Recently, it was reported in The Tuscaloosa News, that the number of African American incoming freshmen at UA has dropped in recent years. This is just one indication that there is still much work to be done. I agree with former University of Alabama President Sorensen that this university has truly opened its doors. In 2003, for administrators and faculty not only at the University of Alabama, but also across this nation, it’s now about opening minds — both our own and those of our students and the wider society.
— Dr. George L. Daniels is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com