50 Years After George Wallace’s Stand

A University of Alabama alumna tells what it was like 15 years after the governor tried to stop integration.

George Wallace stands in front of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama (AFP/Getty Images)

* Stereotypes exist when we fail to stretch beyond our familiar and get to know people of other races, religious and ethnic backgrounds. Although many successful black students had gone before me at Alabama, in each class I attended, I felt that I still had something to prove. I didn’t want anyone — white, black Asian or other — to think that I was an affirmative action case. I wanted to be at the top.

After a while, my mostly white classmates (mainly in political science or English) would ask for my help or invite me to study groups. It didn’t matter who we were or how we had arrived in Tuscaloosa. What mattered was our ability to put together an essay on the works of Edgar Allan Poe or our knowledge of the origins of representative government.

* When attending college at a majority white institution, blacks can enjoy their greatest success by focusing on the race to succeed, while also remembering who they are and why they are there. I decided to attend Alabama because I knew I wanted to be a lawyer or a journalist. When I studied the backgrounds of successful lawyers and journalists in Alabama, I discovered that a large number had graduated from the University of Alabama. I wanted that same success. I wanted to tap into that network.

There was a lot of hard work involved. In 1979 I went to talk about my grades once with a political science professor who told me that maybe I shouldn’t be there. I responded by saying, “You don’t know me.” I had another professor in the speech department who took issue with my vocal tone. His real concern was that I only did presentations in class on the works of black leaders. We had a conference and I advised him to get over it. That’s probably why I got a B in that class.

Although I often regret the fact that I missed the culture and tradition of historically black colleges, I have never regretted my decision to attend the University of Alabama. Years after graduating, I was invited to return in 1996 as a visiting professor. Today I remain as an unofficial recruiter and, of course, a major sports fan. While I realize the university still has much work to do when it comes to race and equality, I am proud of the advancement made since June 11, 1963. The next 50 years should be even greater.

Sherrel Denise Stewart is a freelance writer in Alabama and a 1982 graduate of the University of Alabama.

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