James Hood, who integrated University of Alabama, dies at 70
By Adam Bernstein,
On a scorching June day in 1963, James Hood and Vivian Malone became the first two black students to enroll successfully at the University of Alabama, defying Gov. George C. Wallace Jr.’s symbolic — and vitriolic — “stand in the schoolhouse door.”
Along with the high school students known as the Little Rock Nine in 1957 and James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962, Malone and Mr. Hood became national symbols of the struggle to break down educational barriers during the civil rights era.
Wallace and other political opportunists stoked their constituents with rage. Mr. Hood, who died Jan. 17 at 70, endured physical threats and the coarsest of verbal intimidation. He was a gregarious Alabama native, 20 years old, and a provocative target of a governor who had vowed in his inaugural address: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”
In 1956, Autherine Lucy had been the first black student to register at the University of Alabama. But the college suspended her after three days, purportedly because it could not ensure her safety amid violent mobs on and around campus.
On the day of his registration in Tuscaloosa — June 11, 1963 — Mr. Hood was surrounded by federal guards. He described himself as a virtual prisoner in a government sedan as he sweated in a four-button suit and a hat with a red feather.
According to histories of the showdown, which was captured on national television and documentary films, President John F. Kennedy and his Justice Department team had worked out the details in advance with Wallace’s staff.
The governor would protest federal intrusion on state sovereignty but then yield to the students. In the end, Kennedy was forced to federalize the Alabama national guard, and Wallace gave way only under threat of arrest in front of a towering national guard commander.
“It is my sad duty to inform you that the National Guard has been federalized,” Brig. Gen. Henry V. Graham told Wallace before saluting. “Please stand aside so that the order of the court may be accomplished.”
That evening, Kennedy made a televised national address to frame his actions as a “moral issue . . . as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.” A third black student subsequently — and quietly — registered at the University of Alabama campus in Huntsville.
As much as Mr. Hood tried to merge into campus life after his enrollment, he faced grim and often-vicious reminders of opposition to his presence. A dead black cat was mailed to him. Harassing phone calls arrived at all hours. On June 12, Medgar Evers, who had helped overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi as a field secretary of the NAACP, was assassinated by bullet in his front yard in Jackson, Miss.
In a sad denouement to his enrollment, Mr. Hood withdrew from school that August “to avoid a complete mental and physical breakdown” and prevent his possible expulsion. He had become entangled in several politically charged battles, including a commentary he wrote for a student publication that appeared to criticize civil rights protests.
“I think it has become a matter of excitement rather than conviction for most Negroes,” he wrote. Mr. Hood later told The Washington Post that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been an architect of his enrollment, was wounded by the editorial.
Mr. Hood had given an impromptu speech in his home town that school officials saw as sowing hostility on campus. In addition, Mr. Hood later told The Post, he felt guilt over how his national profile was affecting his family in the northeastern Alabama town of Gadsden. His father, he added, had cancer.
Malone — later Vivian Malone Jones — became the university’s first African American graduate in 1965. She had a long career at the Environmental Protection Agency before her death in 2005.
Mr. Hood, who completed his education elsewhere, became a deputy police chief under Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit in the 1970s. He retired in 2002 as an administrator of police science at the Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin. He returned to the University of Alabama in 1995 and received a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies in 1997.
James Alexander Hood was born Nov. 10, 1942, in Gadsden, where his father was a tractor operator at a Goodyear tire factory.
“Jimmy” Hood, as he was known, was a standout athlete and student body leader at Gadsden’s Carver High School. The summer he was 17, he was a manager at the town’s all-black swimming pool and decided to help friends integrate a white swimming pool. Everyone but Mr. Hood was arrested.
“They didn’t want to arrest me because then the black pool would close and they’d have a problem on their hands,” he told The Post in 1995.
He won a scholarship to study at Clark College in Atlanta and was active in King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Mr. Hood said he was persuaded by civil rights leaders to apply for admission into the University of Alabama. Where the form asked for his race, he wrote: “Negro, American Negro.”
He was denied a place at the college because of his race, and eventually a federal judge ordered Mr. Hood’s admission to the state school. He subsequently graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit and received a master’s degree in criminal justice from Michigan State University in 1972.
His marriages to Carolyn Ragland and Norma Turner ended in divorce. Survivors include a son from his first marriage; two sons from his second marriage; two daughters from relationships; two brothers; three sisters; and nine grandchildren.
A sister, Brenda Marshall, confirmed the death and said her brother had complications from a stroke. He was a longtime Madison, Wis., resident and most recently lived in Gadsden.
Reflecting on race relations in 1995, Mr. Hood told The Post that he had seen “tremendous progress” and expressed a dislike for tactics by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders he found confrontational and polarizing.
In an increasingly multicultural society, he said, “everyone is colored and everyone is a minority.” Civil rights are “not rights for black people, but rights for all people,” he said. “Equality. The freedom to become someone.”