Scholar challenged racial segregation

Last updated 16:28 23/01/2013

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 JAMES HOOD, CIVIL RIGHTS CAMPAIGNER, 1942-2013

‘ Jimmy" Hood read an article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by an academic who had conducted a survey of African-American students. The professor claimed to have found evidence to suggest that the brains of black people were developmentally 200,000 years behind those of white people, and that African-Americans were therefore incapable of absorbing complex intellectual material and were unsuited for higher education.

Hood was incensed. "The survey was done on me and a lot of blacks in my class. They said they looked at our brains and they were too small and couldn't understand anything. So I got mad and said I wanted to do something about it."

He wrote to the editor, asking whether it was right to publish an article sure to cause racial offence.

The academic himself replied to Hood, saying he was not intelligent enough to pose such a question.

"As a black boy, you have no right to challenge an academic like myself," Hood recalled. That response led directly to a key moment in United States history.

Hood wanted to go to university, enter a seminary and become a minister. In the 1960s, however, it was hard for a young African-American not to become drawn into the battle over racial segregation engulfing the southern states.

Hood applied to study at Alabama University, the state's sole public university, in the full knowledge that it was the sole public university left in the US admitting white students only.

He was promptly declined a place. With the help of Young and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), Hood issued a legal challenge against the Alabama authorities, winning a court order from a federal judge ordering the university to admit him.

The matter came to a head on June 11, 1963. Alabama Governor George Wallace promised to "stand in the schoolhouse door", rather than admit black students to Alabama University.

Hood, accompanied by an African-American woman, Vivian J Malone, arrived to register for classes and pay fees. Wallace stood in the doorway of the university's Foster Auditorium and barred their passage.

What then took place was not quite what it seemed. In fact, Wallace had secretly agreed to back down as long as he could save face with his racist electorate.

Wallace was allowed to go through the motions of defiance before giving way in the face of armed federal agents.

He stepped aside and national guardsmen escorted Hood and Malone into the building, where they signed on. Asked whether at that moment he was afraid for his life, Hood said, "I had been assured by the President of the United States that he would do everything in his power to assure that we would live."

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That evening, President John F Kennedy gave one of the most powerful speeches of his brief presidency that proved a turning point in civil rights history. "Not every child has an equal talent or an equal ability or equal motivation, but they should have the equal right to develop their talent and their ability and their motivation, to make something of themselves," he said.

The following night, Congress began considering the Voting Rights Bill that would outlaw the discriminatory voting practices that had disenfranchised African-Americans since the Civil War.

Hood's triumph came at a personal cost. He was repeatedly harassed on the Tuscaloosa campus.

After two months, he abandoned his place, worked for a while at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan, then began to study for a political science and police administration degree at Wayne State University, Detroit. Later, he gained a master's degree in sociology.

Eventually, Hood was reconciled with Wallace, who recanted his segregationist beliefs and publicly apologised. In 1995, Hood returned to the university, on a scholarship from the George Wallace Foundation, and received a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies. The Times

- The Southland Times

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