Stepping Through: A look at the past 50 years of desegregation at The University of Alabama

Mark Hammontree

Vivian Malone and James Hood enrolled in classes on June 11, 1963, and became the first black students to officially integrate The University of Alabama. Fifty years later, The Crimson White has taken an in-depth look at the history of the University since it’s desegregation in a new documentary.

“Stepping Through,” filmed and edited by CW Video Editor Daniel Roth, tells the story of the last 50 years through the eyes of those who lived it, including the CW editor-in-chief during the official integration, the first black athlete to receive a scholarship, the sports information director during the reign of football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, a young woman dropped from sorority recruitment two years in a row due to the color of her skin and the reporters who broke the story of alumnae involvement in lingering segregation in the University’s sororities today.

“It’s been an incredible experience getting to know these people who lived through it. They had no idea what was going on,” Roth said. “You don’t fully realize what you’re living through until you look back on it.”

The roughly 18-minute video begins with the short-lived enrollment of Autherine Lucy, who was admitted to the University in 1956 only to be expelled after three days of threats and intimidation because the administration said it could no longer protect her. Hank Black, the editor-in-chief of The Crimson White in 1963, then discusses the enrollment of Malone and Hood and the events and atmosphere before and after, including the infamous Stand in the Schoolhouse Door speech made by Gov. George Wallace to prohibit Malone and Hood from registering for classes in Foster Auditorium. President John F. Kennedy had to federalize the national guard in order to move Wallace from the building’s entrance.

“I was there in a certain point in history – the intersection of various people and things and events – and I didn’t have any choice about that,” Black said in the documentary. “As a journalist, I felt that that was my role to be open to it, to be observant and just help history along. I’m, you know, proud of that. I’m proud that I walked through that fire and came out a fairly whole person. I mean that’s what I look back on. I realize I didn’t know what I was doing. I was scared to do it, but I did it anyway, and I think that’s where all of us have to start.”

Even after black students began attending classes in 1963, it was still years before other parts of the University were integrated. Wendell Hudson became the first black student athlete to attend the University on scholarship in 1963. In the video, Hudson describes the reactions he received as the only black player on the men’s basketball team.

“Every day there was a reason for me to quit,” Hudson said. “Every day my freshman year here, every day there was a reason for me not to be successful and give up and to let that defeat me. And when I talk to young people, like, that’s no excuse, because, you know, everybody’s going to have a story, not going to be perfect, and it’s going to be a long way from always you’re going to be treated right, but that’s still no excuse to not try your best.”

Even 50 years after Malone and Hood walked past Gov. George Wallace through the doors of Foster Auditorium, the UA greek community has remained largely segregated. Melody Twilley Zeidan was dropped from every Panhellenic sorority two years in a row during formal recruitment. It wasn’t until she was told by a friend that sororities didn’t accept black girls that she even knew why she had been dropped, Zeidan said.

This fall, following an article in the CW titled “The Final Barrier” that detailed how sorority alumnae blocked qualified black women from receiving bids, the administration reopened the bidding process, and now 12 Panhellenic sororities have black members. The reporters of the original article, Matt Ford and Abbey Crain, tell their story about the process and the reaction to “The Final Barrier” in the documentary.

“I think it’s very important, not only if you’re a student here, but also if you just live in the state of Alabama, to know about this stuff and to remember, you know, it hasn’t been good and it’s not good, and there’s a lot we can do,” Roth said. “We’ve come a long way, but at the same time, we’re still stuck in the mud with all this.”

Each person featured in the video tells their own story, and when combined, they all serve as a peek inside the University’s past, as well as its present.

“This is an important and significant documentary because it focuses on the courage it took for students to step up and take a stand against racism, against segregation,” said Mark Mayfield, editorial advisor and associate director of the UA Office of Student Media. “The video ties together the courage of students like Autherine Lucy, Vivian Malone and James Hood with the outstanding contributions of great athletes like Wendell Hudson and Wilbur Jackson. They all made a positive and lasting impact on the University.

“The documentary also underscores the important role played by The Crimson White, not only in the 1960s, but also today with ‘The Final Barrier’ story that led to the changes taking place now in the greek system.”