Ky. Voices: Standing in an open door, 50 years later; Segregation then but not forever

Everett McCorvey is a University of Kentucky professor of voice and hold the Lexington Opera Society Endowed Chair in Opera Studies.
Everett McCorvey is a University of Kentucky professor of voice and hold the Lexington Opera Society Endowed Chair in Opera Studies.

Fifty years ago, on June 11, 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door in an attempt to block incoming Negro students James Hood and Vivian Malone from registering at the University of Alabama.

Without a doubt, this action tested the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the court sent a nation-changing message that "separate but equal" education was unconstitutional.

In 1963, nine years after this decision, no Negro citizens had yet entered the University of Alabama. Wallace, in his efforts to carry out his campaign promise of "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever," stood in the door of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to block equal access to education.

It was not until President John F. Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard that day and instructed Wallace to step aside that the process of education for all took full effect.

I grew up in Montgomery, Ala., during this time. I was in the sixth grade before schools were integrated in Alabama and I was in the seventh grade before I attended an integrated school, two years after the University of Alabama was forcibly integrated.

The fear and the frustrations are still fresh in my mind as I remember those first, uneasy days in 1965 at Bellingraph Junior High School in Montgomery. We were taunted and screamed at every day. Tensions were high and expectations for our success were low.

I will never forget my father waiting for me every day after school and encouraging me to do my best and keep my thoughts focused on the prize of receiving a good education. My family believed in education and believed that higher education was the path out of racism and unequal opportunities.

My father was a deacon at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, where the Rev. Ralph Abernathy was the minister.

Now, 50 years later, my father is still a deacon in that church. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Montgomery home is still around the corner from my parents' home in Montgomery.

The words of King and Abernathy still resonate in my mind, in my heart and in my home. Even though hatred and bigotry were high in the '60s, my father and mother taught me love, patience, tolerance and forgiveness.

They taught me to work hard for what was important and to strive to be the best in my work and in my field. They taught me not to be sidetracked by the ugliness of segregation but to achieve respect through hard work and tenacity and the pursuit of education. They taught me that the way to success was through education.

On June 11, in a commemoration program in Tuscaloosa, 50 years to the day, I stood in the door where Wallace attempted to thwart progress, but instead of being denied entrance, I walked through and participated in a program to celebrate the university's many advances.

My experience in Tuscaloosa from 1975-79 for a bachelor's degree, 1979-81 for a master's degree and 1986-89 for a doctoral degree was a wonderful and exciting time in my life.

Today in Tuscaloosa, and in many universities around the United States, we celebrate the success of education for all and the strides that we have made as a country in breaking the hold of segregation and providing access to all who desire it.

My friends from junior high have now grown up to be successful in many fields of work, including education, the arts, business and religion.

One, Rev. Cromwell Handy, my trumpet bandstand mate from Bellingraph, is the minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. Now, every Sunday, he stands in the pulpit where Martin Luther King delivered many a great sermon.

While acknowledging the complicated road ahead, we can still point to amazing progress since Kennedy's address to the nation the evening of Wallace's stand, in which he said that the situation in Alabama was not a sectional nor partisan issue but a moral issue which was "as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution."

Separate but equal could not stand, and opportunities for all were — and must continue to be — the battle cry of the future.