Fifty-seven years ago on June 11, the Alabama summer heat blistered down on two young and gifted students: Vivian Malone and James Hood. The pair approached the Foster Auditorium of the University of Alabama with the intention to enroll.
Throngs of people were present at this historic moment in which these two students stepped forward to become the first African Americans to enroll at the university. Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood with a line of state officers at the entrance, blocking the door and refusing to allow the students to enter. He stood by hatred, fortified by racism, attempting to prevent human and civil progress. He and many others stood on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of wisdom. He was confronted by the voice of the federal government spoken by U.S. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.
Malone and Hood were heroes who courageously opened paths for many. We rightfully celebrate heroes like astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as the first two humans to step on the moon. Yet, the first steps Malone and Hood took in the same decade were equally inspiring, perhaps even more so because so many hated them or wished to see them fail simply because they were black. Surely there should be statues in the South and beyond capturing the “giant leap” they made for humankind, our nation, and global equality.
The great civil rights champion Rosa Parks once said, “I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free ... so other people would be also free.”
As we consider this historic moment of racial tension, a fundamental and guiding question to ask ourselves is this: Am I, like Gov. Wallace, blocking the door? Or am I holding it widely open to progress so that more can realize their talents and God-given potential?
Ian Houston has spent his career in Washington, D.C., in executive and director positions representing diplomacy, the Foreign Service, and development organizations. He also worked in the U.S. Congress and is currently an Ambassador in Washington for the Scottish Business Network based in Edinburgh, Scotland.