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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Maneuvering through the desegregation of the University of Alabama

LeMaistre remembers the integration of the University of Alabama. LeMaistre and some of his colleagues traveled to some integrated southern universities in order to study a model of peaceable integration. They took their case to George Wallace, with whom LeMaistre clashed. They left his office with an assurance that he would prevent violence, an ambiguous promise he gave in response to their urging that he leave the situation to the control of local law enforcement. Wallace ignored them, and not only sent the National Guard to the university, but also showed up himself, and unable to choreograph the process, decided to oppose it altogether. The result was Wallace's now infamous effort to block the school's doors himself. Despite his interference, the integration process progressed smoothly.

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:
But it was known that applications were in for blacks to enter the University. In fact I'm sure that Vivian Malone and Hood had their applications in before that.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Yes, and they had had several letters back and forth by this time.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Now Blasi in his book mentions a meeting in the fall of 1962 of business and civic leaders and mentions that Bear Bryant was there, Buford Boone, George LeMaistre, Harry Pritchett. You don't remember when that first meeting was?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I don't remember the date, but I remember that we met at the Pritchetts' house. Frank Rose was the presiding officer, so to speak. The University, while they didn't make the calls, gave the list of people they wanted to come out there to . . . I think about three people did the calling. The purpose of the meeting was simply to discuss what our situation here is, where we are going to have to go, how we can prevent happening here anything that resembled what had happened in Little Rock or Oxford. At that time we had had one university already integrated, more or less against the will of the group then; that was Clemson.
ALLEN J. GOING:
that was in the fall of '62]
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
That's right. And they had brought their student [Harvey Gantt, later Mayor of Charlotte and candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1990] in and put him in school and got by with no rioting or rough house, although there was just as much loud talk and rabble rousing going around in that part of South Carolina as there was in Alabama. But the president of the University stepped out front and made the head of the textile manufacturers of South Carolina his counterpart with the business people, and between them they brought it off without any real upset. There was a lot of mumbling and grumbling, but there wasn't any riot or mob or confrontation. And so we thought that if we could work something of that sort here, we would be much better off. Pritchett and . . . I'm trying to think who the third one was. Three of us went to Clemson—flew up there and talked to the president, to the man that was the head of the Cotton Council, actually the chief lobbyist for the textile industry, and spent a day with them. Frank Rose at the last minute couldn't go. He called the man and explained why he couldn't get there, but the president was a friend of Rose. He was very kind to us; he gave us all the written material that they had, and I think that if we had had a student to present herself at that time, it would have come right on in the regular course of business. Because of the fact that they could only enter at a certain time (and I guess that that had to do with the rules of matriculation) that you just couldn't take students whenever they just showed up at the front door, we probably wouldn't have had the Vivian Malone incident.
ALLEN J. GOING:
You could have done it like Clemson. Get one on your own, so to speak.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
And Wallace had just as much notice as the NAACP or anybody else about when it was going to take place because a definite date was set for the hearing.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Well, and, of course, Judge Grooms's ruling for Vivian Malone and James Hood didn't come until the following April. I read somewhere that they thought it was possible to integrate the University at Huntsville at that time. Do you remember anything about that?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I don't think so, because at that time the University at Huntsville was not really a University. It was an extension point as Dothan, Mobile . .
ALLEN J. GOING:
I guess that's what they were thinking about—to integrate the University of Alabama's Center at Huntsville.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Some of them may have suggested that, but it was never a real possibility, or I don't think that anybody seriously thought that would stop the movement to bring black students here. In that same period the University of Alabama football team took an unmerciful beating in Birmingham from the University of Southern California, and the man who carried the ball was one Sam Cunningham, a black, 215-pound, six-foot-four fullback. And when Sam Cunningham got through running over that football team, they were pretty well convinced that they would be a better football team if they had some blacks to play. So they didn't have that group of people fighting the integration.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Do you think that was the reason Bear Bryant was active . . .
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I think it was. Bear was not very active in this situation; he had other things to do, and he didn't have time to do it. He did go to the meeting. Bear Bryant was also a strong supporter of George Wallace. He just couldn't stand it when Wallace failed nationally. He thought that Wallace should have had at least a chance to run for president.
ALLEN J. GOING:
But he didn't support Wallace
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Not openly]
ALLEN J. GOING:
I mean in the integration at the University.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
No. I don't know what his feeling was about integration. Obviously he couldn't have played as many black football players as he did and been very much opposed to it.
ALLEN J. GOING:
But he did support Rose's efforts to try to bring it off as peaceably as possible.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Right. I think you have to give him credit for going against what he would probably preferred, just for the good of the University . . .
ALLEN J. GOING:
Did you go to Jackson?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Yes, I did. After we went to Clemson, we flew to Jackson, about the next week and talked to the lawyers there for the University and asked them if they could outline to us what led up to the shootings on the campus and what the Meredith admission to Mississippi taught them. And the lawyer was kind enough to spend half a day with us going over the whole thing and explaining where he thought they had made their mistake and giving us a good bit of guidance. And after we had talked to those two where integration had been brought about, one of them by violence and one by peaceful means, we felt there weren't many other places to go look. We started working here. And that's when the committee formed that group that met down at the Stafford and got the resolution . . .
ALLEN J. GOING:
That was toward the end of May, it says. But in the meantime you had been traveling around the state some speaking . . .
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Yeah, I had made speeches in Florence, Decatur, Huntsville, Dothan, Selma. It looked like I was running for office. All of them on the same theme: If we didn't have sense enough to learn something from Little Rock and Mississippi, we deserved to have the government just take us over and run our business for us. And I can say that most of the business men that attended those meetings, and most all of them were Rotary Clubs or some civic club or a group of executives who were just called together for that purpose, nearly everyone of them gave one hundred percent support . . . I don't recall anybody in the group ever getting up and saying "You're wrong" in any of those towns, even Selma. One man in Selma, I remember, got up and said he appreciated somebody coming in and saying the things they felt they couldn't say. But he didn't disagree with them. So I guess that took about three weeks to get all around the state.
ALLEN J. GOING:
When did you really become aware that Wallace was going to try to capitalize on this?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
We went to see Wallace.]
ALLEN J. GOING:
When was that?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Barret Shelton and John McConnell from Mobile and about four others from here, (I think Tandy Barrett may have been in the group), went to Wallace's office about two weeks before Vivian Malone came in. And our plea to Wallace at that time (I was spokesman for the group; I guess they thought that I could talk to him because I had taught him in law school) . . . I based the request on the example we needed to set that if Alabama was going to be a leading state in the South, it had to show that it could take the things it didn't particularly like as well as the things that were pleasing like winning football games. And it seemed to me that the least we could expect from a state administration was that it do everything in its power to promote law and order. And Wallace at that time interrupted me and said, "Well, I don't like that law and order business. ‘Law and order’ is a Communist term. You hear them using that as an excuse for what they are doing." And I used a little expletive there that wouldn't look good on the tape and told the Governor what I thought about his thinking. And I don't think that helped any; I think I made a mistake. I should have said, "Yeah, Governor, you're right but come on and go with us." But I didn't. And we spent about two hours with him, and after we left—we left with his assurance that he wasn't going to have anybody get hurt or have any trouble.
ALLEN J. GOING:
This would have been in May, I guess, about two or three weeks before the registration in June.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Well, the meeting that we held at the hotel of the businessmen here was to adopt a resolution that was to be presented to Wallace. (I don't know whether we've got the date of that meeting or not; I think we do somewhere.
ALLEN J. GOING:
It was May 28]
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Yeah, well that was what the . . .
ALLEN J. GOING:
400 civic leaders]
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
And they all signed this petition to Wallace, and the gist of it was that we wanted him to stay away and not send armed troopers in but simply leave the chief of police and the citizens of Tuscaloosa to handle the problem. And we felt that we simply could not put Alabama through what Mississippi had gone through. And we left there—left Montgomery after . . .
ALLEN J. GOING:
That was after you took the petition?]
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
We spoke to Wallace and then brought the petition back. But the one thing that probably caused us to feel a little badly about it was when Wallace said goodbye to us, he pretty well assured everybody (There were a number of people there, and I can't remember all of them. Mayan Layman was there, as I recall it.) that he wasn't going to do anything to harm the University, that he wasn't going to do anything to cause loss to the State of Alabama. But he made it pretty plain to us that he was still going to take some political stand on it.
ALLEN J. GOING:
He wanted to "stand in that school house door."
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Well, he never did mention the "schoolhouse door" in our discussions. He just said that he felt as chief executive there were some things he could do.
ALLEN J. GOING:
He didn't make it clear what he was going to do?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
No. And one of the things we asked him to do was simply stay out of Tuscaloosa—not come up here and not send the troops up here, troopers I should say, the Highway Patrol. And he didn't mention calling out the National Guard. And I don't think that was by accident; I think he already had made up his mind that he would call out the National Guard. He didn't think, however, of the possibility of the President federalizing the Guard and taking command away from him which is what happened.
ALLEN J. GOING:
But, as I recall, the Guard went on "maneuvers" in this area, and Wallace didn't object to that.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
But then he issued the order to send them over to the campus to protect the property of the University, as I recall it. The campus was sealed off, not by state troopers but by the National Guard.
ALLEN J. GOING:
But it was said also that Wallace made a direct appeal to the Klan to stay away. I don't know whether that was true or not.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
He probably did, and I don't remember the wording of it, but he issued a statement which in essence said, "Let the authorities handle it. The people that are interfering with these things, stay away from it." And whether he mentioned Ku Kulx Klan by name, I don't know. I doubt that he did.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Well it was said that he sent word unofficially somehow.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Of course, that's like his sending word to the grand jury about those lists that they wanted down in the original investigation.
ALLEN J. GOING:
That wasn't for public consumption.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Right]
ALLEN J. GOING:
I don't know when this was, whether it was immediately after he had formulated his plan of action to stand in the door. He sent some kind of assurance, again privately, to Rose that he was going to step aside and let things proceed normally.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
As I remember that little charade, he proposed that he be allowed to read his protest. Now when I say proposed, that was his attempt to deal with Bobby Kennedy as the Attorney General. And he asked that he be allowed to make his protest and then, I remember him using the term, "overwhelmed," that then he be "overwhelmed by Federal might." And I guess he wanted to be carried out of that door, I don't know, but Kennedy turned him down and sent Nick Katzenbach down with the court's order. And so he wasn't permitted to do his little act of raising his hand and then being picked up bodily and carried away with cameras clicking all around the place. He was reduced to having the order read to him and then the head of his own National Guard saying, It was his "sad duty" to order him to comply. And so the one that would have been hauling him off would have been his hand-picked head of the National Guard which would not have been all that good a political picture.
ALLEN J. GOING:
One little sidelight on this is mentioned where Al Lingo was head of the state troopers. He was here first, before the National Guard came—some time before.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
He had a security patrol set up on campus.]
ALLEN J. GOING:
And at one point it was said that he issued an order where no blacks whatsoever could come on campus. And somebody pointed out to him that a good many, if not the majority of the help on the campus . . . Do you remember? It was said something about having to have a meeting about it.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Well, he had ordered, in order to protect them from violence, that blacks should stay away from the campus. I don't know who took him the message, but it was quite clear that that would shut down all the kitchens and all the janitorial work on the campus. Most of the cooks and the great majority of the maintenance people were black; not all of them, but that was a pretty well integrated group even in those days. But the message went back to Lingo that the order he had given was so broad that he was simply shutting down the campus, and he withdrew it.
ALLEN J. GOING:
I believe it was said (this was in that Blasi book again) that they had to go through Wallace to get Lingo to retract that.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I think that's correct, because the highway patrol was always treated by Wallace as pretty much his personal bodyguard. And as chief executive he technically had the authority to order them to do whatever he wanted them to. But most governors, I don't think, spend a lot of time telling the highway patrol chief how to run his business. But Wallace was more prone to do that than others.
ALLEN J. GOING:
But by and large, as everyone knows, it has been written up so often, the whole thing went off without any violence anywhere. I guess the efforts of your group paid off in that respect.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I think the group that was probably most incensed by the whole deal was the law students. They sent an order over there ordering them to stay away from the windows in the school. The school looked right down onto the scene, and anybody looking out the windows could have seen everything going on. It was quite warm, and the windows were open; the building wasn't air conditioned. It would have been easy to follow it from the second floor of the law school. But the national guardsmen sent word up there that no one was to be allowed in those windows. And I suppose today that would be a reasonable precaution. The Secret Service probably wouldn't let them get anywhere near there in order to protect the Federal personnel that were around.
ALLEN J. GOING:
So the integration of the University went forward from then on really without any problems at all.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
There were several, but very few, problems from then on. Once in a while a student would report some insult or remark that was made that really wasn't funny. And there may have been some cases where black students were made to feel quite uncomfortable, but I never have noticed any concerted efforts by white students in any number to get rid of black students since the thing was integrated. Obviously there is still not a flood of black fraternity members, and I am not sure that there are any whites in the black fraternities. But the students as a whole have never made any big fuss over whether someone was white or black in the classes or in the student activities.
ALLEN J. GOING:
And there wasn't any real repercussion in any sense from outside the University—I mean from the Klan. I guess that by that time they had pretty much accepted the inevitable.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Well, one of the earliest, if not the earliest, black student after Vivian Malone was admitted was John Mitchell who played end on the football team. And actually was captain of the football team his last year, and was the first black coach that Bryant had. He kept him here as the coach after he graduated. Then Wendell Hudson came down and became a black basketball player. Both of them were successful; both of them were diplomatic in speaking to people. They didn't cause any problems, and they didn't act like the downtrodden, humble black either. They took what they thought to be theirs, and I think they deserve some credit for the way this thing has gone on.
ALLEN J. GOING:
I guess it was probably in Wallace's second term by the 1970s that he crowned the first black Homecoming Queen.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I remember that.
ALLEN J. GOING:
That was about ten years after integration?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Well, it was at least eight years anyway. The stand in the door never did seem to produce the political results in Alabama.