Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Alabamans resent being told what to do more than desegration itself

LeMaistre remembers some public protests in Tuscaloosa, aimed at integrating the University of Alabama. These protests did not escalate into riots in part because of the restraint of the city's chief of police, who was more concerned with keeping order than with preventing integrationists from having their say. The threat was enough in two instances, however, to bring state troopers to the campus. LeMaistre believes that there was strong support for integration as well as for segregation; the bigger issue for Alabamans was being told what to do, he thinks.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ALLEN J. GOING:
Of course, you were very much involved in the integration at the University seven years later. Would you say that the Autherine Lucy case sort of caught everybody by surprise?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
It did. Autherine Lucy disturbances (I don't like to call them a riot) there was a failure of law and order, and they were not sparked by the educational people. It wasn't a group of students saying "I'm not going to school with blacks." It was a group of Ku Klux, rubber workers, and hoodlums saying "You can't make those folks go to school with blacks." And the rock throwing and the uproar that took place. [END OF TAPE 4, SIDE A] [TAPE 4, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 4, SIDE B]
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Threats that were prevalent in Tuscaloosa at that time came from these outsiders, not just rubber workers, people from Holt, other unions, and what you might call the bluecollar class around town were pretty much excited. The only real organized work done on the campus by students was led by Leonard Wilson, who was a student who at that time I think lived in Selma. He later lived in Jasper, but when he came here as a student, he was from Selma. And he became pretty much carried away with his own importance as a student leader, I guess you might say, and had some ideas of being elected governor by acclamation, or something of that sort. At any rate, he organized and led several rather mild protests by students, the biggest of which was one that took place on the night of a Vanderbilt basketball game.
ALLEN J. GOING:
That must have been either Friday or Saturday night.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
At that time we were playing them on the weekends. That night after the game the students all marched from Foster Auditorium down University Avenue making a lot of noise and generally behaving like students, having more fun with it then they were seriously trying to upset the constitutional rights of anybody. But at any rate they gathered at the flagpole at the intersection of Greensboro Avenue and University Avenue, and that's the time when Walter Flowers, who was president of the student body, climbed up on the base of the flagpole and pleaded with them to go home. And his opposition when he was addressing the students was led by Leonard Wilson. I think they were sort of directly opposed to each other, but Walter didn't have a whole lot of people in his camp; Leonard had more supporters. About all they achieved was that they finally broke up the parade; they didn't go anywhere else. They didn't change their minds.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Were you at the basketball game?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I was at the basketball game, but I wasn't at the parade. I found out about it after I had gone back home.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Now, one night didn't some group march on Carmichael's house?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
There were two or three times when that happened. One time Mrs. Carmichael was there by herself, I remember. She came out and the students at that time who had come to protest simply told her to tell the President that they were protesting. They didn't actually stay there very long. The next time when they came out in front of the President's Mansion, He [Carmichael] was there, and they did shout and raise a little sand, but nobody was hurt and no damage was done. I think it was enough to make him pretty much upset with the way things were going. I think that he could see that this whole student body was susceptible to that kind of rabble rousing.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Do you know anything about the efforts to get more police protection, etc.? There were all kinds of stories . . .
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I heard the same stories: That they were called for, and a few minutes later a call would come back and they would say, "Where did you say to come?" Or something like that, and nothing would be done. But actually Bill Marable who was the Chief of Tuscaloosa Police at that time, was a very strong-minded kind of person who actually did not resist integration. I wouldn't say that he was an integrationist, but he was not willing to let the city be torn up to keep the blacks and whites from going to school together.
ALLEN J. GOING:
He was trying to preserve law and order.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Exactly. I think he was not only for law and order, but he didn't object to the integration of schools. And when he was present at the police station, it didn't have any of that dilly-dallying around; he got out and took care of the situation as best he could. Of course, he couldn't be there twenty-four hours a day, and I'm not sure that some of the stories, some of the rumors, might not have been true. That they may have called down there and got no action. But if he were there and knew about it, I'm sure that they did get results. The best evidence that Bill Marable was trying to enforce the law, even the law dealing with the right to go to an integrated school, was that the Ku Klux had him on their list to get rid of—very high on the list
ALLEN J. GOING:
Weren't there also stories about attempts to get the State Troopers here?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
There was an announcement by George Wallace . . . George Wallace had announced in 1963 when we had the Vivian Malone incident . . . Well at that time George had announced that he could keep order in Alabama. I don't recall that anything was said about the National Guard right after the 101st Airborne went to Little Rock in '58, but the first place I remember the National Guard being brought into it was, I think, at the bombing of the school in Clinton, Tennessee, when the governor called out the National Guard to keep order and, if I'm not mistaken, the President federalized the Guard at that time.
ALLEN J. GOING:
That was '56 I think. Pretty close to the Autherine Lucy [incident]. But what I had heard was that there was some attempt to get Folsom or the head of the State Troopers just to send some Troopers over here to help with police protection.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I don't remember them doing that although you know the troops were here in the Vivian Malone time. In '56 and '57 I do not recall the troops being physically present. Whether there was a discussion of it . . . I am sure the news stories of that time would tell us, because it would have been a public discussion of it.
ALLEN J. GOING:
I don't think they ever came; even the state patrolmen didn't get here, and that was the source of some controversy as to why they didn't come.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Now the state patrol came in after the Autherine Lucy [affair] but not during it.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Some said there was an uncalled for delay.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I think they came in and sealed off the campus; you had to have a pass to go on the campus. Whether that was to keep out her supporters or to impress on people that this was going to be a safe and secure place for their students to go to school, I don't know. If I'm not mistaken the State Highway Patrol did come in.
ALLEN J. GOING:
I know they did that in '63.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Yeah, but I think even then they came in some force and sort of put a ring around the campus, but after the problem had pretty well died down.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Were you on campus that Monday when all the so-called rioting took place?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I was out at the Law School, and of course I was in my office downtown most of the day.
ALLEN J. GOING:
I wasn't aware that it was as critical as it was. I was way over in Woods Hall, where nothing much . . .
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Nothing much went on at the Law School either. We were very much involved in the Malone incident, because Foster Auditorium was immediately behind the Law School, and all of it took place where we were all watching. I remember the National Guard attempted to keep people away from the windows, and I can understand why. Of course that was before the assassination of President Kennedy . . . And it pointed out that it was dangerous to let people stand in those windows when some kind of demonstration was going on, particularly if a man had a weapon of some kind. The presence of the police on campus though in the Lucy incident never developed into any kind of battle between police and students. I don't recall any situation where there was a confrontation. There was some rock throwing, noise making, and that kind of stuff when the local police and the University police attempted to move that mob of outsiders off the steps of the Union Building.
ALLEN J. GOING:
All of that by Graves Hall [where] she had a class—where the real danger point was. But talking earlier about Carmichael, when he gave up the presidency, what was your impression of his relations with the Board right after this incident?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I don't think that it could be described as pleasant. I think that the feeling existed on the part of some of the "leading" members of the Board who had pretty much grown to believe that they personally owned the University, that he had outlived his usefulness. I don't think anybody on the Board ever publicly asked for his resignation; he beat 'em to that. He determined to resign before they could get themselves into position to find some reason to ask him to leave. But there were some members of the Board and some members of the faculty who were very much upset that he didn't lead a militant opposition against it, like the situation at Ole Miss.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Of course he hadn't been here very long, as I recall—three years, I think.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Well, he wasn't of that nature anyway. But I don't think that he would ever have been a party to an armed resistance against . . . certainly not against the United States authority, but not against the State or even the City.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Was Gessner McCorvey on the Board at that time?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I'm inclined to believe that this may have been the last period that he was on the Board. Hill Ferguson was still on the Board, and some of the . . . Buster Lawson was on it and whether Sam Earl Hobbs had come on at that time or whether he came on right after I don't recall. Hobbs left the Congress about this time [1965], and Sam Earl was appointed, I believe, after his father resigned, but I'm not sure of that. The Board meetings in those days were not covered as well by the newspapers as they are now. About all you got out of the news about Board meetings in those days was whatever they gave out in a statement after the meeting was over. They weren't secret, as far as I know. There was no attempt to bar the press, but today every time the Board meets there is a reporter there reporting what they do. But that wasn't always true in those days; certainly there wasn't any reporting of who said what.
ALLEN J. GOING:
During the intervening five or six years before the next crisis at the University of Alabama, as we have said before, there was a gradual increase in tension over racial incidents, particularly the Little Rock in '57 and '58, and then remember beginning about 1960 many of the younger blacks began to (not so much in Alabama but in other states) take matters in their own hands with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating and the sit-ins. So all of that was occurring during that interval. But what was your impression of what was going on in Tuscaloosa during that five to six-year period?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Well, there was a pretty strong undercurrent in Tuscaloosa both for and against this integrating of public schools. Most of the discussion, though, dealt with integrating the lunch counters, busses, and things of that sort. The Rosa Parks case down in Montgomery had attracted an awful lot of attention and had drawn the support of Martin Luther King. The public was more attracted to the boycotts that were called from time to time in various towns and the increasing demands that were being made, the attempts to integrate churches, things of that sort, things that were more or less irritants to the people but really didn't make a whole lot of difference. Nobody really cared whether some black ate at the lunch counter at Woolworths. They just didn't want to be told that they had to let him do it. I think the general feeling in this area, and much more so in the Black Belt was that if something doesn't happen to cool this kind of disturbing element that we are really going to get into trouble. People were beginning to think about Reconstruction days; they were worried about cross burnings leading to house burnings and bombings and that kind of stuff. And the people in Birmingham, as you recall, particularly in the very early sixties, they became quite accustomed to having black homes dynamited.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Somebody said that was brought about by the extensive supply of dynamite used in mining up there. They were familiar with it.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Well, subsequent events have proved that to be true. One or two of those cases where they had a conviction of someone on charges of dynamiting a church, the sixteenth street [avenue] up there, the bombs were made from dynamite that was stolen from a mine or from some other type of industrial operation near Birmingham. It didn't come from anybody's store.