When George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door

Earlier this week TCM played the classic Robert Drew cinéma vérité documentary “Crisis: Behind a presidential commitment.” The documentary first aired on ABC in October 1963. My only purpose is to bring it to your attention in case you might find it of interest and to recommend it if you haven’t seen it before.

The documentary takes us behind the scenes of the Kennedy administration’s efforts the previous June to enforce the federal court order desegregating the University of Alabama. The link to the documentary accessible for a fee via YouTube (above) provides this summary:

When Governor George Wallace literally stands in a school building door to block the admittance of two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, to the all-white University of Alabama in 1963, President John F. Kennedy must decide whether to commit the power of the presidency to backing racial equality. This astonishingly intimate documentary of a key confrontation in the U.S. battle for civil rights takes viewers inside the White House, the U.S. Justice Department, and the Alabama governor’s mansion, candidly filming events from all sides with cameras that follow each participant as the crisis unfolds, up through its dramatic climax.

The film is also accessible on Amazon Prime. It is in any event a powerful and moving documentary. Representing the Democrats’ hold on the solid South, Wallace was of course a stalwart of the regime of segregation. After making his stand in the schoolhouse door, however, Wallace retreated. Events play out as a sort of domestic analogue to the Cuban missile crisis.

The film presents impressive portraits of JFK, RFK, and Nicholas Katzenbach. The only moment of levity in the film’s 52 minutes comes under high stress, when RFK puts three-year-old daughter Kerry on the phone to chat with Katzenbach. We see both ends of the conversation. For a few seconds, the stress breaks and Katzenbach cracks a smile.

Having watched the climax unfold in public on the evening news, I found that the documentary brought back a lot of memories. It’s hard to believe it all happened within my lifetime, or how far we have come in at least one respect. Unfortunately, among other things, we have exchanged “segregation forever” for “affirmative action forever” and all its many kissing cousins.

One wonders what happened to the two students at the center of the film. They are incredibly composed and dignified as events unfold around them. Checking Wikipedia, I discover that the late Vivian Malone Jones was Eric Holder’s sister-in-law. Wikipedia provides this touching update:

In October 1996, Jones was chosen by the George Wallace Family Foundation to be the first recipient of its Lurleen B. Wallace Award of Courage. At the ceremony, Wallace said, “Vivian Malone Jones was at the center 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.

James Hood’s entry notes:

In 1997, Wallace planned to give Hood his degree, but poor health prevented him from attending the ceremony. Hood himself was convinced that Wallace was sincere after that meeting, as he wrote in an interchange following the PBS documentary on Wallace, Setting the Woods on Fire. Hood attended Wallace’s funeral in 1998, imploring others to forgive Wallace as he had, as Wallace had publicly apologized for his actions.

Below is the trailer for the documentary.

Below is the Criterion Collection’s profile of Robert Drew and background on Drew’s four Kennedy films (the three others are “Primary,” “Adventures on the New Frontier,” and “Faces of November”). Drew’s site is here.

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