Many Americans remember Vivian Malone in tandem with James Hood as they were denied entry to the University of Alabama in 1963. Gov. George Wallace was there to block them from integrating the all-white institution.
Malone eventually succeeded and went on to become the first African American to graduate from the college as well as to make her mark in several other walks of life, including her fight for voter registration.
She was born July 15, 1942, in Mobile, Alabama, the fourth of eight children to a mother who was a domestic servant and a father who worked in maintenance at Brookley Air Force Base. Like her older siblings, Malone was motivated to get a decent education and attended Central High School, becoming a member of the National Honor Society. In 1961, she enrolled in Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, one of only a few colleges that would accept Black students in the state. She was a student at A&M for two years and received a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Her next goal was to earn a degree in accounting but none was offered at A&M, and even more disappointing her degree in business administration was earned before it was fully accredited. To earn a degree in accounting she would have to transfer to another college. When the local Non-Partisan Voter League of Mobile began formulating plans to desegregate the University of Alabama, Malone, because of her outstanding performance, was among several students tapped to apply to the Mobile campus. Two hundred students applied for admission and all were rejected. The denials, according to the university, were based on over-enrollment and the students not having met the required standards—in short, they were Black.
Undaunted, Malone persisted in her determination to earn a degree in accounting from the University of Alabama, and she was soon under the wing of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund of Alabama that began a push to enroll her in the university’s School of Commerce and Business Administration. James Hood was another student the Fund was backing. After two years of court dates and legal deliberations, Malone and Hood were granted permission to enroll by an order of District Court Judge Harlan Grooms in 1963.
The judge based his ruling on the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education and charged that the denial was unconstitutional. He also declared that Gov. Wallace could not interfere with their desire to register at the school, which led to his famous standoff. On June 11, 1963, U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach led a contingent of federal marshals, escorting Malone and Hood, where they were confronted by Wallace, who voiced his historic comments about segregation forever. “The unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama today of the might of the central government offers a frightful example of the oppression of the rights. Privileges and sovereignty of this state by officers of the federal government,” he claimed, a moment captured in the documentary “Eyes on the Prize.”
All while this encounter raged at the schoolhouse doors, Malone and Hood sat in the car until they were summoned by Katzenbach, who called on President Kennedy for assistance. The attorney general escorted Malone to her dormitory and her room. Later she ate in the cafeteria along with several white students. After lunch she waited for the next move that came when the president federalized the Alabama National Guard to enter the fray. Wallace remained defiant and the guardsmen eluded the governor by entering another door to the building. When Malone and Hood entered the building they were greeted by a throng of white students who applauded them. And Malone was later accepted into the school as a junior. For the most part, her attendance at the school was relatively calm except for rioting in November from segregationists still unsettled by the historic breakthrough. There were some bombings but Malone remained on campus and two years later received a Bachelor of Arts in business management, and the school’s first African American graduate.
Success and achievement at the school didn’t immediately transfer to subsequent stages of her life, and there were no job offers commensurate with her degree and accomplishments. Ultimately, she joined the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division as a research analyst. As a student at George Washington University she pursued a master’s degree in public administration. Her next job was with the office of the U.S.
Veterans Administration as a specialist in employee relations. And she was in attendance when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1977, she was appointed to a position as the executive director of the Voter Education Project and helped provide funds for voter registration projects across the nation. She later was the director of Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and director of Environmental Justice for the U.S. EPA, a position she would hold until her retirement in 1996. For a while after retirement she sold life insurance and in 1996, ironically, was chosen by the George Wallace Family to be the first recipient of the Lurleen B. Wallace Award of Courage, an award honoring the governor’s wife. She delivered the commencement address at her alma mater in 2000, and received a doctorate in humane letters. Four years later, the Alabama State Legislature honored her by passing a resolution in commemoration of her outstanding achievements.
Malone’s personal life was equally distinguished by her marriage to Mack Jones, who when she was integrating the college was her chauffeur, and became an obstetrician and predeceased her in 2004. Her brother-in-law was Eric Holder, a former U.S. attorney general, and her nephew Jeff Malone was an outstanding player in the NBA. When she died following a stroke on Oct. 13, 2005, a legacy of awards and honors were bestowed in her name. She had a son, a daughter, and three grandchildren, four sisters, and three brothers.