For some Alabamians, George Wallace’s primary victory promised to preserve segregation across the state, but events in Mississippi soon threatened to spill across the border. On September 20, 1962, twenty-nine-year- old Air Force veteran James Meredith, flanked by a US marshal and an assistant attorney general, walked through a gauntlet of taunts and threats into the alumni building at the University of Mississippi in an attempt to register for fall classes. Inside, he was met by Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, acting as registrar. After twenty-three minutes of discussion, Barnett rejected the African American student’s enrollment. Meredith left for Memphis, where he began to plan another attempt to register at the all-white school. Barnett emerged victorious, praised by segregationists, fellow southern governors, and the state legislature for a “fearless and courageous stand.”
On May 1, 1962, seven candidates for governor of the state of Alabama prepared to learn the results of the Democratic primary, a de facto coronation in the one-party political environment of the state. The returns were surprising. Most assumed that James “Big Jim” Folsom, a two-term governor hoping for an unprecedented third term, would win easily. Instead, Folsom ran a close third to Ryan DeGraffenried of Tuscaloosa and the frontrunner, George C. Wallace, a district judge, former state senator, and recent runner-up in the gubernatorial race of 1958.
On March 26, 1962, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark case, temporarily distracting Alabamians from the conflict brewing across the region. Years earlier, Charles Baker, a resident of Shelby County, Tennessee, brought suit against the state for its outdated voting districts, unchanged in over fifty years. As southern cities grew in size, urban counties like Shelby, home to the city of Memphis, began to eclipse rural counties in population. Yet elected officials, afraid that urban voters might include enfranchised African Americans and white liberals, refused to amend voting apportionment to reflect changing demographics. In Tennessee, Baker argued, the districts outlined in the 1901 state constitution provided for an unequal distribution of political power. The United States District Court dismissed the suit, citing lack of judicial authority—in essence, the court argued that the federal government had no responsibility for state political decisions.
From its inception, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, decided to focus its efforts on African American communities across the South, encouraging education and political participation as a way to create a local leadership that could continue the fight for equality. While the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) participated in marches and gave public speeches, SNCC sent representatives and volunteers to rural communities in order to, in the words of Alabama’s John Lewis, “[bring] America’s invisible black vote out of the darkness of fear and repression.”
The Freedom Rides challenged the Kennedy administration to confront the continued existence of segregation in the Deep South. African American protests provoked southern whites to act violently towards activists; the resulting publicity kept the struggle for civil rights in a national spotlight. The reaction to the civil rights movement in the South, usually termed "Massive Resistance," encompassed a number of groups, each with different motivations and methods. As the federal government considered legislation to enforce equality, and as civil rights activists planned protests, southern resistance helped shape the civil rights movement.
In Alabama, the summer of 1961 was dominated by discussion of the "Freedom Rides" and the growing national outcry over the mistreatment of civil rights activists who came south to protest continued segregation. Throughout the summer, over three hundred activists boarded buses and tested integration at terminals across the South, eventually convincing Attorney General Robert Kennedy to step up enforcement of the desegregation of interstate bus terminals across the region. As protests rippled through the Deep South, segregationists and supporters of civil rights recalled the events of late May, when the attention of the world had focused on Anniston, Birmingham, and Montgomery.
The hostility to the integration of the University of Georgia in January 1961 startled some southerners. Violence against civil rights activists was not a new phenomenon, but in Georgia's capital, Atlanta, city leaders claimed to reject a hard-line stance against integration in favor of racial moderation. The city's mayor, William Hartsfield, bragged that Atlanta was "the City too Busy to Hate," hoping that national and international businesses would look to the city to invest in the growing Sunbelt economy. In cities across the South, coalitions of business owners, professionals, and investors began to preach cautious acceptance of limited desegregation as a way to improve the South's reactionary reputation. As one local study warned, racial conflict "did not make good dollars and sense."
On Monday, January 9, 1961, news reports of integration troubles in Georgia captured the attention of anxious white Alabamians. They learned that Hamilton E. Holmes, a sophomore pre-medicine major at Morehouse College in Atlanta, and Charlayne Hunter, a freshman studying journalism at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, were prepared to register for classes at the University of Georgia (UGA). Hunter and Holmes first applied to UGA in the summer of 1959, but the students’ applications had been rejected. Atlanta’s Committee for Cooperative Action (ACCA), a community-based civil rights group, hired lawyers and successfully challenged the university. Under the support of a federal court ruling by Judge William Bootle, the African American students arrived in Athens and readied for class.
In the fall of 1960, national attention focused on the most contentious presidential election in recent memory as John F. Kennedy, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, challenged Richard M. Nixon, the Republican Vice President. Alabamians paid particular attention to the televised debates and public speeches that dominated airwaves and print media over the summer.
In the summer of 1960, as the civil rights movement began to take on an added urgency in the wake of the sit-ins, events overseas placed the activities of young protestors into a global perspective.