A half-century ago, George Wallace became famous – some might say infamous – for his pledge, as the governor of Alabama, to “stand in the schoolhouse door” if necessary to prevent African-Americans from getting an education in the same classrooms as whites, even if it meant defying President John F. Kennedy and the federal courts.
While Wallace’s bluster made the headlines and history books, sadly, less attention has been paid to the object of his antipathy: James A. Hood, who, with Vivian Malone Jones, broke the color barrier by attending the University of Alabama in 1963. It took a federal court order and a contingent of National Guard soldiers to compel Wallace to back down and allow the two to enroll in classes.
Hood, who died on Jan. 17 at age 70 in Gadsen, Ala., experienced such vicious harassment at the university – he had to live alone in a dorm with federal marshals guarding him – that the burden, coupled with his worry about his ill father, became too great to bear. He reluctantly had to withdraw after just two months. (Jones did manage to stay and earn her degree.) Nevertheless, Hood’s courage broke down a barrier that allowed others to follow in his footsteps, and he ultimately overcame hatred and prejudice to live a life full of achievements.
Here are five facts about one of the civil rights movement’s unsung heroes:
- Hood wanted to attend the University of Alabama to study clinical psychology.
- While Hood fought to gain entrance to the University of Alabama, he attended Clark University in Atlanta, where his English instructor was Christine King Farris, the sister of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- After leaving the University of Alabama, Hood transferred to Wayne State University in Michigan, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice and sociology.
- Hood eventually joined the Detroit Police Department, and rose to the position of deputy chief.
- Despite their legal confrontation in 1963, Hood and Wallace didn’t actually meet in person until 1996. Hood – who had returned to the University Alabama to pursue a doctorate in higher education – paid a visit to the elderly, ailing former governor, who by then had renounced his segregationist views. Asked whether he was willing to accept Wallace’s change of heart, Hood replied, simply, “I have never had any reason not to forgive Governor Wallace.” Hood continued to visit Wallace regularly, and the two men actually became such close friends that Wallace even expressed a desire to personally present Hood with his doctoral diploma, though his frail health prevented him from attending the ceremony. “Everybody said that I underestimated Wallace, that I didn’t know who the man was and that I didn’t understand how racist he was,” Hood told a reporter in 1968. “In my gut, I felt that George Wallace stood there that day as a politician looking for votes and to pay for votes he had already gotten. That’s exactly what he [later] told me, and I didn’t have a problem with it.”