As part of Black History Month, we are highlighting several women with connections to our region who made—and are making—significant contributions to the modern Civil Rights movement. Look for more of these posts in the weeks to come.
This week, we celebrate Vivian Malone who was born in Monroe County, Alabama, in 1942—the fourth of eight children in her family. She grew up in a community heavily involved in desegregation and equality efforts, and her parents placed a high value on education. So, after excelling in high school, she enrolled at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University (Alabama A&M), where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business Education. Because Alabama A&M was not fully accredited at that time, Vivian sought to pursue a second degree in accounting, a major offered at the University of Alabama.
The Alabama NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund worked with Malone and another student, James Hood, as part of a desegregation initiative targeting the University of Alabama. At the time and in direct defiance to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the University of Alabama was denying African-American students admission. After two years and a number of court rulings, both students were granted approval to enroll at the university and Alabama’s governor George Wallace was directly instructed not to interfere with their registration.
At his inauguration, the governor vowed to maintain “segregation forever”, and intended to fulfill this promise by barring the two students from the college. On June 11, 1963—with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees—Malone and Hood were driven to the campus in a motorcade of federal marshals as state troopers took position near the governor, who stood blocking the door of Foster Auditorium.
Mrs. Malone later said in a 2000 commencement address at the University of Alabama, “It was more than a hot day, it was a dangerous day. Although every precaution had been taken by state and federal authorities and by university officials to assure my safety and that of James Hood, no one knew for sure what might happen. The demonstrations in Birmingham, accompanied by fire-hoses, police dogs, bombings and a police riot, had just ended. Later in September four little girls would die in the dynamiting of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The President of the United States would be assassinated on November 22. And less than twelve hours after I walked into Foster Auditorium to begin my days as a student here, Medgar Evers was shot dead from ambush in nearby Jackson, Mississippi.”
Because of the tension, President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard that afternoon, meaning they reported directly to the president and not Wallace. Four and a half hours after Governor Wallace’s initial refusal of entry, one hundred guardsmen escorted Malone and Hood to the auditorium. Wallace read another prepared statement and then quickly left, allowing the two students to enter the building.
That November there were three bomb blasts near the campus, one just four blocks from her dormitory. But, she said, “I was never afraid.” The university hired a driver for her, Mack Jones, and they eventually married. In 1965, after two years, Jones earned a Bachelor of Arts in business management—becoming the first black graduate in the University of Alabama’s then 134-year history.
Despite her achievements, Malone was never able to find work in the state of Alabama. She eventually moved to Washington, D.C. to work in the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice. She went on to become director of Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and Director of Environmental Justice for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before her 1996 retirement. Vivian Malone Jones passed away in 2005 at the age of 63. Of her historic achievement, she once said, “Walking through the door that had been closed to me and others of my color was a step toward ending segregation in the south. I thank God for selecting me for that purpose.”
*Lead image: Image source: (Warren Leffler, photographer, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)