Big Nick, Rosa Parks, Vivian Malone Jones —- and yes, yet another man called—- Wallace!

5 Dec

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One rainy day in 1943, whilst the worst of The Second World War was raging in Europe, a 30 year old black woman boarded a bus in Montgomery Alabama in the Southern United States of America. She proffered her money for her ticket and the driver– one James Fred Blake — who saw action as a member of the army in that same war—- handed her the requested ticket.

However, before the young woman was allowed to take her seat, Bus Driver Blake ordered her off the bus stating that whilst she had a ticket to ride, she had entered the bus by the wrong door. Basically, our young woman was black and she had boarded the bus by way of the “White’s only” door,

Not wishing to create a fuss, the young woman got off the bus– once again using the “White’s only” door — and walked the few yards towards the entrance reserved for ” Coloured’s or Black” people at the rear of the vehicle. As she walked towards the door at the back of the bus– still clutching her ticket — Bus Driver Blake closed the doors and drove off leaving his potential passenger standing in the evening rain.

Twelve years later, on the 1st of December 1955, Bus Driver Blake was once again at the wheel of his bus, when lo and behold the once 30 year old woman he had left standing in the rain boarded his bus again. This time she had entered through the correct door, had bought her ticket and had sat down on the bus and Mr Blake carried on with his driving without further ado.

Little did he know, that the small petite woman had remembered who he was and how he had left her standing in the rain all those years before, and little did he know that within the next few short minutes he would become embroiled in a situation that would lead to his passenger becoming famous in American folklore and being seen as a beacon for human rights- not just in America but throughout the world.

As the bus filled up, Mr Blake would attempt to enforce a local law which had stood since 1900, by making the black or coloured passengers move to the back of the bus so that the “White folks” could take a seat at the front.

However, on this December day in 1955, this one small black woman– a seamstress from a local department store– simply refused to move even when she was threatened with the police and potential arrest, with the result that Blake had to call on the forces of the Law to have her removed and ultimately charged.

When the police arrived they quickly established that the name of the woman concerned was Rosa McAuley Parks.

She was charged with a violation of Chapter 6, Section 11 of the segregation law of the Montgomery City code and as she was being lead away she asked the policeman ” why do you push us around so?” only for the policeman to reply  “I don’t know, but the law’s the law, and you’re under arrest.”

The story of Rosa Parks is well known, however it is often misunderstood in relation to its significance in ending segregation in the Southern United States and in the State of Alabama in particular.

Other black women had been arrested for refusing to move along on buses long before Rosa Parks, yet the practice and the law had continued just as before.

However, in the case of Rosa Parks the difference was that she herself was seen as an outstanding citizen who was respected by black and white alike, was a dedicated civil rights campaigner, and someone who after 20 years or more campaigning on behalf of blacks had decided on that December day that enough was enough. On that day and on that bus she took the view that she was confident enough to take the State of Alabama and the City of Montgomery in particular to the highest court in the land. She later said, “I only knew that, as I was being arrested, that it was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind…”.

In short, she- with the help of others- decided to move from a stance of organised protest on the streets to the stage of the most formal of protests in the most formal of institutions in America — The courts. She was in complete agreement with her arresting policeman– the law was indeed the law, and it should be on her side.

By the time Rosa came to trial, The entire black community in Montgomery had decided to boycott the bus company and for well over a year black people would walk to work, cycle to work, take communal taxis or what have you rather than take a bus. The bus company in turn lost a fortune with many of their vehicles ultimately sitting idle.

The Boycott had been announced from Church Pulpits throughout Montgomery on Sunday 4th December and within a few days of Rosa’s arrest some 35,000 leaflets had been distributed protesting at her treatment, calling for a boycott, and demanding a change in the law.

Mr Blake, the City of Montgomery and its “Jim Crow” law had picked on the wrong woman!

Her trial (on 15th December)  lasted only half an hour and she was ultimately fined the outrageous sum of $10 ( her fare had been 10 cents ) and was ordered to pay $4 in costs.

Rosa Parks immediately appealed and the bus boycott  was extended for the duration of the proceedings.

However, there was genuine fear in the black community that Rosa’s appeal would be deliberately delayed and impeded within the court system, and so a civil challenge to the offending law was raised on behalf of a number of other black women who had previously been charged with similar bus offences.

Accordingly on February 1, 1956, Fred Gray (attorney for the Montgomery Improvement Association) filed a lawsuit in the US District Court of Montgomery on behalf of another  five black women  who had all been the victims of discrimination on local buses. W.A. Gayle, the Mayor of Montgomery, was the defendant.

Among the plaintiffs was one Aurelia Browder who had been arrested on April 19, 1955, 7 months before the arrest of Rosa Parks, for sitting in the white section of a public city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was convicted and fined for her alleged crime. The other plaintiffs were Susie McDonald, Jeanette Reese, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith.

On June 5 1956, the judges released their decision in the landmark case of Browder v Gayle and determined that segregated buses violated the equal protection and due process guarantees of the 14th Amendment and were therefore unconstitutional. The City of Montgomery could not enforce any law “which may require plaintiffs or any other Negroes similarly situated to submit to segregation in the use of bus transportation facilities in the City of Montgomery.” Both the city and the state appealed this decision and on December 17, 1956, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously upheld the ruling, issuing a court order to the state of Alabama to desegregate its buses there and then. The Montgomery bus boycott ended on December 21, after 381 days.

Rosa Parks, Aurelia Browder and others had won.

However, the significance of the victory was not heeded by the State of Alabama, and in many respects remains misunderstood by subsequent civil rights protesters in that it was not Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat that had brought down the state, but rather the determination to force the state to fall within, recognise and abide by not only the law but the full force of the constitution of the United States of America that had always offered US citizens of every colour the appropriate legal protection.

If the City of Montgomery and the State of Alabama received a legal kicking in the cases of Rosa Parks and Aurelia Browder, that was to be nothing when compared with the upheaval caused by a young black woman called Vivian Juanita Malone Jones and a young black man by the name of James Hood.

After two years of deliberation and court proceedings, Malone and Hood were granted permission to enrol in the University of Alabama by order of District Court Judge Harlan Grooms in 1963. The district court had ruled that the University of Alabama’s practice of denying African-American students admission into their university was a violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case in which the act of educating black children in schools separate from white students was charged as unconstitutional.

The court cases for Malone and Hood had been brought by arrangement through  The NAACP ( National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People ) Legal Defence and Educational Fund of Alabama, and standing in their way (literally) was the Democratic Governor of the State– Governor George Wallace.

Having ruled in favour of Malone and Hood, Judge Grooms had also forbidden Governor Wallace from interfering with the students’ registration at the University of Alabama as the Governor had openly proclaimed that he would “stand in the schoolhouse door” to prevent black children from registering at the University.

It was at this stage that the world got to see one of the most remarkable events in the history of the United States of America.

Picture the scene: It is the 11th of June 1963 and a huge crowd gathers at the entrance to the Foster Auditorium on the University of Alabama Campus. The temperature is well above 100 degrees and the heat is oppressive. The campus is swarming with not only students, but hundreds of press men, members of the Alabama State Guard, and all sorts of members of the public when a most unlikely figure appears accompanied by two US Marshalls.

The figure concerned is the gentle giant hulk of Nicholas de Belleville Katzenbach, Deputy District Attorney of the United States of America who stood all of 6ft 5 inches tall.

Katzenbach is the epitomy of a legal G Man. His parents were Edward L. Katzenbach, who served as Attorney General of New Jersey, and Marie Hilson Katzenbach, who was the first female president of the New Jersey State Board of Education. His uncle, Frank S. Katzenbach, served as mayor of Trenton and as a Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Big Nick was the stereotype square man in a square hole, a man destined to be a Government legal officer from birth— or so it seemed — and he was there in Alabama with the full power and might of The President of the United States at his back.

As Katzenbach heads towards the entrance of the Foster Auditorium, while the two black students remain in a car guarded by yet more US Marshalls, he is met at the schoolhouse door by the much shorter, barrel chested and jutting chin figure of Governor Wallace — just as the Governor had promised.

The giant law man starts to publicly inform the Governor, in the nicest and most mild mannered way possible, that he is there to uphold the law and ensure that Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood are registered at the University, and he politely asks The Governor to step aside.

However, before he gets too far, big Nick is interrupted by Governor Wallace who proceeds to read a long speech which essentially tells the Deputy District Attorney and President Kennedy to get lost and makes it quite clear that court order or no court order, The Governor, with the assistance of the State Guard, will forcibly prevent Malone Jones and Hood from entering the building and completing their registration.

The crowd, the press and the Deputy District Attorney– who has to continually wipe himself down with a hanky due to the heat– are forced to look on in astonishment.

When the Governor finishes his speech, Katzenbach repeats his plea to the Governor but ultimately is simply forced to go back to his car.

Yet within a short time, with the press and the crowd still present, the giant Law man returns and this time he is accompanied by General Henry Graham of the Alabama State Guard. In the intervening period, Katzenbach had called President John F. Kennedy, and asked him to federalize the Alabama State Guard thus taking away the Governor’s position as commander in chief of the guard and now placing the general under the direct command of Kennedy himself. At this stage, General Graham approached the auditorium and commands Governor Wallace to step aside, saying, “Sir, it is my sad duty to ask you to step aside under the orders of the President of the United States.”

Wallace then protested further for a short period, but eventually moved, and Katzenbach proceeds to ensure that Malone Jones and Hood are registered as students.

Within a few months, Kennedy would be shot dead in Dealey Plaza, and Lyndon Baines Johnson would assume the Presidency. Katzenbach would go on to become not only the District Attorney of the United States but also the Undersecretary of State. The Big man would cause some controversy in relation to the Kennedy Assassination when he wrote that in his opinion “Unfortunately the facts on Oswald seem about too pat—too obvious (Marxist, Cuba, Russian wife, etc.)…….” and it was then said that he was one of the chief architects behind the Warren Commission findings and the possible cover up of the true events surrounding the Kennedy Assassination.

He would later leave Government Office and would take up various positions in private practice and industry, however his sphere of influence in later years can be seen by the fact that in 1980, Katzenbach testified in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in the defence of W. Mark Felt, who was later revealed to be the “Deep Throat” of the Watergate scandal and later Deputy Director of the FBI; Felt was accused and later found guilty of ordering illegal wiretaps on American citizens.

In December 1996, Katzenbach was one of New Jersey’s fifteen members of the Electoral College, who cast their votes for the Clinton/Gore ticket and later he also testified on behalf of President Clinton on December 8, 1998, before the House Judiciary Committee hearing which was considering whether or not to impeach President Clinton.

However the most amazing thing about the incident at the schoolhouse door was that it brought Governor George Wallace to the attention of the greater American public for the first time.

You would think that Wallace’s repeated public calls for segregation and his stance at the door would have made him hugely unpopular– however that is not the case,

Wallace later revealed that part of his stance on segregation was based on the not unreasonable belief that if he had not taken the stance that he did then there would have likely been all sorts of civil unrest at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and that he did what he did to keep the peace. When you listen to what he actually said in his parting speech at the schoolhouse door there is much to support that contention.

He later publicly regretted the stance at the Schoolhouse door saying “I stood there and kept peace, but it still was a bad public relations posture and I’m sorry I did it that way.”

Wallace briefly ran for president in 1964, and when he couldn’t legally run for Governor again, his wife ran instead and was elected.

In 1968, he was back on the presidential campaign trail. Wallace was no longer a Democrat by this time, and instead stood as the leader of the American Independent Party. He pledged, if elected, to put troops on the streets of Washington, if needed to make the city safe.

“This is not race I’m talking about. Every time I mention this they say this has racial overtones,” Wallace commented. “When does it come to have racial overtones in this country to stand for law and order?”

The man who couldn’t change history in 1963 did change history in 1968 by winning the presidential votes of more than 9 million people. That support came mostly at the expense of Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Humphrey ultimately ended up half a million votes behind the Republican winner, Richard Nixon. Without Wallace, Humphrey would likely have won and Nixon would have been defeated.

Wallace began another presidential run in 1972, however that campaign ended when Arthur Bremer cut him down with five pistol shots in a Maryland car park after a campaign rally.

The former Governor won the 1972 Michigan Democratic primary while fighting for his life in a hospital. He made a triumphal appearance two months later at the Democratic National Convention, which nominated George McGovern, and in the process was proclaimed a hero.

He would never walk again or make a serious bid for the presidency, but his political career was far from over.

He continued to win elections for Governor and gained the support of many black voters and politicians for whom he’d once been a symbol of hate.

Finally, in 1986, Wallace acknowledged he was too old and sick to continue.

“I bid you a fond and affectionate farewell,” he said.

At the end of his career, many people were sorry to see him go.

Wallace was a Democrat at a time when virtually every Southern politician was a Democrat; a segregationist at a time when, he believed, most white Southerners were as well. He was a lifelong populist who said he wanted to be remembered as the education governor.

Wallace lived to see a Republican succeed him in the Alabama statehouse and to see his son, George Wallace Jr., continue the family political tradition.

His physical condition deteriorated and Parkinson’s disease added to the pain from the 1972 shooting.

When asked how he wanted to be remembered he stated “I did the best I could for the state of Alabama and the United States,” and of his stand at the schoolhouse door he commented “It shouldn’t have happened, and the state of Alabama is better now as a result of the integration of its schools.”

Despite earning high academic achievements from the University of Alabama, and becoming the first ever Black Graduate, Vivian Malone Jones never received a job offer in Alabama. She later joined the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington D.C. and served as a research analyst. While in Washington, she attended George Washington University, pursued a Master’s Degree in Public Administration and earned a job as an employee relations specialist for the Veteran’s Administration central office.

She took a position as the Executive Director of the Voter Education Project and worked towards voter equality for minorities, thus assisting millions of African-Americans to register to vote. She then became the Director of Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and Director of Environmental Justice for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a position she held until her retirement in 1996.

In October 1996, Jones was chosen by the George Wallace Family Foundation to be the first ever recipient of its Lurleen B. Wallace Award of Courage. At the awards ceremony, Former Governor Wallace, who had never met Jones despite the events of 1963 said, “Vivian Malone Jones was at the centre of the fight over states’ rights and conducted herself with grace, strength and, above all, courage.”

In 2000, the University of Alabama bestowed on her a doctorate of humane letters.

Rosa Parks eventually had to leave Alabama and so she and her husband migrated north to Detroit like many other Southern Black Americans.

Parks’ act of defiance and the Montgomery Bus Boycott became important symbols of the modern Civil Rights Movement. She became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation. She organized and collaborated with civil rights leaders, including Edgar Nixon, president of the local chapter of the NAACP; and Martin Luther King, Jr.,then a new minister in town who gained national prominence in the civil rights movement.

In Detroit, she found similar work and from 1965 to 1988 she served as secretary and receptionist to John Conyers, an African-American U.S. Representative. After retirement, she wrote her autobiography, and lived a largely private life. In her final years, she suffered from dementia.

Parks received national recognition, including the NAACP’s 1979 Spingarn Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and a posthumous statue in the United States Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. Upon her death in 2005, she was the first woman and second non-U.S. government official to lie in honour at the Capitol Rotunda.

Her birthday, February 4, and the day she was arrested, December 1, have both become Rosa Parks Day,  and are commemorated in the U.S. states of California and Ohio.

Bus driver James Fred Blake drove the Montgomery City Bus until his retirement in 1974 and never had to look for another job. He said of Rosa Parks ” I was only doing my job. I had my orders.”

However, perhaps the greatest achievement brought about by a combination of events surrounding Rosa Parks, Vivian Malone Jones and Governor George Wallace comes about by way of a seldom told story:

In 1994 the Ku Klux Klan applied to sponsor a portion of United States Interstate 55 in St. Louis County and Jefferson County, near St. Louis Missouri. The sponsorship effectively meant that the Klan were paying for the highway to be cleaned up. In return for the sponsorship, the organisation would be entitled to erect signs which stated that the said portion of the Highway was maintained and looked after by the Ku Klux Klan.

Since the state could not legally refuse the KKK’s sponsorship of the Highway, the Missouri legislature decided to act and voted to give a name the section of highway concerned.

And that is how it came to pass that the Ku Klux Klan became responsible for maintaining the “Rosa Parks Highway” !


If you are in any way interested in watching the entire stance at the schoolhouse door confrontation between Governor George Wallace and big gentle Nicholas Katzenbach you can see the entire extraordinary incident here:


One Response to “Big Nick, Rosa Parks, Vivian Malone Jones —- and yes, yet another man called—- Wallace!”

  1. tiltic December 5, 2013 at 10:33 am #

    Brilliant read

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