This NBC documentary charts the lengthy struggle for school desgregation in America, from the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 to the battle to integrate the University of Alabama in 1963.
The Struggle for School Integration
LESTER HOLT reporting: If the Freedom Riders had gained ground by helping to integrate public transportation systems, almost a full decade after the landmark decision Brown vs. Board of Education, public schools in the Deep South still had a long way to go. The issue of school desegregation became a major conflict in Mississippi promoting what its governor would call the greatest crisis since the war between the states.
Governor ROSS BARNETT: I love Mississippi. I love and I respect out heritage!
HOLT: In 1962, Mississippi was a bastion of white supremacy led by arch segregationist Governor Ross Barnett. And the State University of Mississippi, Ole Miss, was a preserve of southern tradition. It was no surprise that the governor opposed a federal district court ruling which ordered the university to admit its first black student, a 29-year old Air Force veteran, named James Meredith. In September, 1962, NBC News reported on Meredith’s third attempt to enroll at the university.
Reporter: Governor Ross Barnett again refused to permit Negro student James Meredith to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Student James Meredith arrived within the last hour. This was the scene.
Governor BARNETT: Gentlemen, my conscience is clear. I am abiding by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Mississippi and the laws of the State of Mississippi. Thank you.
Unidentified Man: You refuse to permit him to come through the doors?
Governor BARNETT: Yes, sir. Yes, sir.
Unidentified Man: Alright, governor. Thank you.
Governor BARNETT: I do that politely.
Unidentified Man: Thank you. We will leave politely.
CHARLES J. OGLETREE, Jr. (Harvard Law School): The Brown decision was decided in 1954 and people thought the battle was won. Well, it was just beginning. When a court said, “integrate”, it didn’t mean anything if it didn’t really translate to something positive in places like Mississippi.
HOLT: President Kennedy thought it was vital to enforce the court order in Mississippi with military action if necessary.
Reporter: On September 30th, hundreds of U.S. Marshals preceded Meredith to the campus. They poured from planes at Oxford Airport wearing white helmets and orange vests with pockets for tear gas bombs. Some carried tear gas guns. A convoy of Army trucks moved into Ole Miss. Soon after they took up positions around the Lyceum building, Meredith was slipped secretly into nearby Baxter Hall.
HOLT: That evening, the president explained his decision to the nation.
President JOHN F. KENNEDY: My obligation under the Constitution and the statutes of the United States was, and is, to implement the orders of the Court with whatever means are necessary and with as little force and civil disorder as the circumstances permit.
HOLT: But even as the president spoke, scores of segregationists descended on Ole Miss to protest Meredith’s presence at the university. That night the campus would become a battlefield.
RICHARD VALERIANI, reporting (archive footage): This was the scene on the campus of Ole Miss last night. The lights of cars bearing federal marshals were moved to the campus from a naval air station outside Memphis. The first arrival on the campus was greeted without incident, there was no trouble. But then when word spread that Negro Air Force veteran James Meredith was on the campus and had been brought to Ole Miss to register, the fighting started.
RICHARD VALERIANI (NBC News Correspondent): I think the violence was expected but the vehemence of the violence wasn’t expected. We expected resistance but we didn’t expect it to be that severe.
HOLT: Former NBC News correspondent Richard Valeriani was there.
VALERIANI: This was new. You didn’t have Birmingham behind you, you didn’t have Salma behind you, you had, this was sort of the first outburst, one of the first outbursts, after Little Rock. But it was just a very scary time.
HOLT: State police, still under the command of Governor Barnett, stood by and watched as segregationists threw rocks and bottles at the marshals. And the situation quickly grew out of control.
VALERIANI, reporting: The battle became more deadly. Snipers opened fire on the marshals, several were wounded. Federalized guardsmen from Oxford were rushed to the battle scene. Followed by regular Army troops from their standby in Memphis. One after midnight the military forces drove the rioters off campus, the rioting swept downtown. More troops arrived and were bombarded with flying objects along the streets. Several were hit, windshields were smashed. By early morning, the battle was over. Two men were dead, almost 200 injured. In the grey morning light, flames still flickered among the charred hulks of cars burned by the rioters. The acrid smell of tear gas hung thickly in the air. The Lyceum area was littered with rocks and broken glass and hundreds of spent tear gas canisters.
HOLT: Just hours after what has been dubbed “The Battle of Oxford,” James Meredith walked across the quieted campus escorted by federal officials and registered as a student.
Rep. JOHN LEWIS (D-Georgia): The Battle of Oxford was a major point in the struggle for de-segregation and integration. I think it said once and for all that the federal government will enforce the law, will enforce the spirit of a decision of the boards.
OGLETREE: If Mississippi goes, that means the rest of the South goes. And if you can open up the doors in Mississippi, then you might have an easier time in other places. So it was a major step in the right direction.
HOLT: In June, 1963, eight months after the Battle of Oxford, the fight for school integration spread to Alabama.
FRED GRAY (civil rights attorney): Even though Brown vs. Board of Education had been decided, in ’54, just before I got out of law school, there had been very little change in the public school systems of Alabama in ’63.
HOLT: When a federal court ordered the University of Alabama to admit its first black students, it was the last of the state universities to remain fully segregated. And Alabama Governor George Wallace vowed to fight integration every step of the way.
Gov. GEORGE WALLACE (Alabama): And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!
Rep. JOHN LEWIS (D-Georgia): George Wallace had the goal, the unbelievable nerve to defy a court order. To go against the federal government, the national government. It left something that I can never forget, and no one was living during those years can forget.
HOLT: The governor was blunt about his plans on NBC’s Meet the Press.
LAWRENCE SPIVAK (moderator, Meet the Press): What exactly will you do? You said that one time I believe, or at least were quoted as saying that you would “stand at the door and bar them.” Now two marshals probably, or more, will come with these students. Will you prohibit them from crossing the door?
WALLACE: Well of course I shall stand at the door as I stated in my campaign for governor, but of course, as the governor of the state, embodying the sovereignty of the state, it will not be as individual standing in the door, but as the people of Alabama.
Pres. KENNEDY: And I would hope that the law abiding people of Alabama would…
HOLT: President Kennedy discussed the impending crisis in a press conference on June 9th.
Pres. KENNEDY: …every other state in the country has integrated their state university and I would hope that Alabama would follow that example.
HOLT: Two days later, southern resistance to integration would culminate in a notorious standoff with the federal government at this doorway at the University of Alabama. On June 11th, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach arrived on campus with the two black students: Vivian Malone and James Hood.
GRAY: Instead of letting these schools proceed to be desegregated, George C. Wallace, he decided to send the state troopers in, surrounded the school, prohibited integration. Well this was serious.
HOLT: This NBC Special Edition of Chet Huntley reporting covered the drama that followed.
Gov. WALLACE: Just a minute, just a minute.
NICHOLAS KATZENBACH (Dep. U.S. Attorney General): Governor, I am the deputy attorney general of the United States. And I have with me here, a proclamation signed by the president of the United States which calls upon you to cease the obstruction of justice in this state.
Gov. WALLACE: Now therefore, I, George C. Wallace, as governor of the State of Alabama, do hereby denounce and forbid this illegal and unwarranted action by the central government.
KATZENBACH: I take it from that statement that you are going to stand in that door and that you are not going to carry out the orders of this court and that you are going to resist us form doing so, is that correct?
Gov. WALLACE: I stand upon this statement.
KATZENBACH: Very well.
CHET HUNTLEY, reporting: And that’s the way it ended on the first confrontation. In Washington, President Kennedy acted to federalize the Alabama National Guard and several hours later the troops arrived. Brigadier General Henry Graham, commandant of the guard, approached Governor Wallace and saluted.
Brig. Gen. HENRY GRAHAM: I am General Graham and it is my fair duty to ask you to stand aside under the orders of the president of the United States.
Gov. WALLACE: But for the unwarranted federalization of the National Guard I would at this moment be your commander in chief. And I know this is a bitter pill to swallow for those in the National Guard of this state.
HUNTLEY: This then is the moment when Governor George Wallace of Alabama walked away from the schoolhouse door.
HOLT: By the end of that day, June 11, 1963, Vivian Malone and James Hood, would finally enter those same doors and enroll as students. That evening, the president spoke to the nation.
Pres. KENNEDY: We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is, whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities. Whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant opened to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed?
HOLT: The following week, President Kennedy submitted a bill to Congress that would later become the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by Lyndon Johnson.
Rep. LEWIS: It was also a matter of making real this idea, this concept, of creation of one nation, one people. That you cannot have an America that is all-inclusive, an America that is at peace with itself without all of our people being able to get an equal education.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racially segregated schools as unconstitutional in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Explore 10 illuminating facts about the lead-up to and aftermath of this defining civil rights moment.
Civil Rights, Civil Rights Act of 1964, University of Mississippi, James Meredith, John F. Kennedy, Charles Ogletree, Richard Valeriani, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, March On Washington, Congressman John Lewis, Alabama Governor George Wallace, University of Alabama, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, Lyndon Johnson