JFK faces down defiant governor - HISTORY
Year
1963

JFK faces down defiant governor

On this day in 1963, President John F. Kennedy issues presidential proclamation 3542, forcing Alabama Governor George Wallace to comply with federal court orders allowing two African-American students to register for the summer session at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The proclamation ordered Wallace and all persons acting in concert with him to cease and desist from obstructing justice.

The battle between Kennedy and Wallace brought to a head the long, post-Civil War struggle between the federal government and recalcitrant southern states over the enforcement of federal desegregation laws. Kennedy, a Catholic, considered racial segregation morally wrong. As of 1963, Alabama was the only state that had not integrated its education system. From the time of his gubernatorial campaign in 1962 until this day in 1963, Wallace had boldly proclaimed that he would personally stand in front of the door of any Alabama schoolhouse that was ordered by the federal courts to admit black students. In response to Wallace’s rhetoric, Kennedy sent his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, on April 25 to negotiate with Wallace; the talks failed. The Kennedy brothers, having decided that they were dealing with a raving maniac, looked for an indirect solution. JFK appealed to Alabama business leaders and influential politicians to talk sense into Wallace. On May 21 and again on June 5, the U.S. district court ordered Wallace to allow the students to register on June 11. Wallace dug in and refused, hoping to force JFK to call up the National Guard, an act Wallace was sure would infuriate staunch states’ rights supporters and paint JFK as a tyrant. Robert Kennedy wanted his brother to go ahead and federalize the Alabama National Guard and arrest Wallace, but the president feared that such an action would play into Wallace’s hands. So, the president waited for Wallace to make the first move.

On the morning of June 11, the day the students were expected to register, Wallace stood in front of the University of Alabama campus auditorium flanked by Alabama state troopers while cameras flashed and recorders from the press corps whirred. Kennedy, at the White House, and Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, in Tuscaloosa, kept in touch by phone. When Wallace refused to let the students enter for registration, Katzenbach phoned Kennedy. Kennedy upped the pressure on Wallace, immediately issuing Presidential Proclamation 3542, which ordered the governor to comply, and authorizing the secretary of defense to call up the Alabama National Guard with Executive Order 11111. That afternoon, Katzenbach returned with the students and asked Wallace to step aside. Wallace, knowing he was beaten, relented, having saved face with his hard-line, anti-segregation constituency. Three days later, a third black student registered at the University of Alabama campus in Huntsville without interference.

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