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Alabama's Response
to the Civil Rights Movement

State-organized massive resistance to the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 marked white Alabama's official response to postwar race reform. The antecedents of the strategy appeared when Gov. Frank Dixon resisted federal efforts to promote racial equality through the wartime Fair Employment Practices Committee. While Dixon and other reactionaries organized the States Rights Party of the "Dixiecrats" to fight racial liberalism, other Alabamians such as New Dealer Aubrey Williams, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Sen. Lister Hill, and Rep. John Sparkman, promoted moderation. The election of Gov. James E. "Big Jim" Folsom in 1946 signaled statewide support for liberalism, although legislators on Goat Hill compromised his reformist agenda. The national emergence of the Cold War with its red baiting of racial liberals enabled conservatism to triumph in Alabama.

Despite Folsom's opposition, massive resistance swept the state during his second administration as Citizens Councils formed in response to the 1955-56 Autherine Lucy attempt to desegregate the University of Alabama and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The election of Gov. John Patterson with open Ku Klux Klan support in 1958 marked a shift in state policy toward massive resistance. When an integrated group of civil rights activists organized the Freedom Ride in 1961, state and local governments allowed white vigilantes to brutally beat the integrationists.

Other Alabamians responded differently to the civil rights protests. White Montgomerians Virginia and Clifford Durr helped Rosa Parks at the outset of the bus boycott. Several white ministers offered limited assistance to the Reverends Martin Luther King, Jr., in Montgomery and Fred L. Shuttlesworth in Birmingham. The white student and Elba native Bob Zellner joined John Lewis, a black native of Troy, in leading the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. As the civil rights movement gained momentum during the 1960s, more black and white Alabamians participated.

Yet the election of George C. Wallace as governor in 1962 made massive resistance the central policy of the state government. His administration ruined Alabama's reputation nationally, instituted brutality towards protesting citizens—black and white, made the state a target of civil rights demonstrations, and ultimately led to economic stagnation. Wallace recast the highway patrol into the Alabama State Troopers complete with automatic weapons and steel helmets boasting Confederate battle flags. During the same period the State Legislature created the State Sovereignty Commission to unconstitutionally spy on Alabamians engaged in civil rights activities. Wallace authorized violence against demonstrators in Birmingham and Selma, but also throughout the Black Belt and elsewhere in the state. In 1963 he stood in the schoolhouse door to prevent the desegregation of the University of Alabama and fanned the flames of massive resistance that led to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, an act that took the lives of four black girls.

Yet the civil rights movement won federal concessions in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act that slowly changed the nature of local and state politics. Many white Alabamians elected Gov. Lurleen Burns Wallace to maintain the policies of her husband, which she did until her tragic death, yet the ascension of the Lieutenant Governor, Albert Brewer, suggested a change in policy. George Wallace returned to power in 1970 by defeating Brewer and defending massive resistance, but a failed assassination attempt on his life in 1972 started a process of reflection that led to repudiation of racism and an effort to heal the hurt he caused during the civil rights movement. Attorney General William J. "Bill" Baxley pursued the church bombing case until he won a conviction against a Klan perpetrator. Wallace received a majority of the black votes cast during his successful fourth run for the governor's office in 1982. The conversion to racial liberalism by Wallace mirrored the change in Alabama as African Americans gained political power as first class citizens of the state. Today Alabama embraces its racial heritage and promotes its civil rights legacy as a tourist attraction.