MICHELE NORRIS, host:
An obituary now for a woman who opened doors during the civil rights movement, literally. Vivian Malone Jones died today at age 63 in an Atlanta hospital. In 1963, a young Vivian Malone, along with James Hood, tried to register for classes at the University of Alabama. Malone and Hood were black; the rest of the student body was white, and the governor of the state wanted it to stay that way, so George Wallace blocked the way.
(Soundbite of 1963 recording)
Governor GEORGE WALLACE (Alabama): I stand here today as governor of this sovereign state and refuse to willing submit to illegal usurpation of power by the central government.
NORRIS: Vivian Malone Jones eventually did register and went on to become the first black graduate of the school. Two years ago she told NPR how she felt that day when she was blocked from entering the school.
(Soundbite of 2003 interview)
Ms. VIVIAN MALONE JONES: I expected it to go pretty smoothly. Of course, I don't think the system was ready for me at that time, but I was ready for them.
NORRIS: E. Culpepper Clark is dean of communications and information services at the University of Alabama. He's also author of "The Schoolhouse Door," a book about the last stand for segregation in Alabama. He says the world's eyes were on Vivian Malone Jones that day, and she was up to the task.
Mr. E. CULPEPPER CLARK (University of Alabama; Author, "The Schoolhouse Door"): The woman had incredible grace, incredible courage. She had a way of casting herself into the future in order to endure the present. And it created a remarkable calmness about her. When she walked through that door, she had a slight smile; it was sort of a confident smile for someone who didn't know all the feelings inside her. By personality and disposition, she was perfect.
NORRIS: What was life like for her at the university?
Mr. CLARK: Being alone. It was a very lonely experience. There was the awkward gestures of many friendly students who would try to reach out, but it was awkward. It was like getting on a segregated bus for the first time and sitting down next to someone of a different race.
NORRIS: But if you think about the bus analogy, it's usually a short trip. You get off the bus. She studied in this environment, went to class in this environment, lived in this environment.
Mr. CLARK: Oh, perfectly right. And you know, while awkward and difficult, certainly not impossible for someone of her disposition to manage. She managed it remarkably well. But I would say when she graduated from here, she was still very much alone.
NORRIS: What kind of student was she?
Mr. CLARK: A very good student. She graduated at the top of her class here in the Business School. One thing that really was unsettling for her is that she got not one single job offer in the state of Alabama after she graduated at the top of her class in business.
NORRIS: I'm wondering how she viewed her role, if she was aware of her place in history while she was at the University of Alabama.
Mr. CLARK: She was very much aware of her place in history. The measure of her courage is that she knew what she was doing. She knew its implications. She knew the danger of the threat, you know, and when you know all that and do it anyhow, then you're a courageous person.
NORRIS: That's E. Culpepper Clark at the University of Alabama. He's remembering Vivian Malone Jones, who died today. Here's what she had to say about her role in civil rights history.
(Soundbite of 2003 interview)
Ms. JONES: For those of us who were trying to open the doors and change things, I saw it as a change, and I see myself as being part of that change where doors could be opened for generations to come.
NORRIS: One last note on Vivian Malone Jones: In 1996, she met Governor George Wallace, the man who stood in her way at the university door. After all those years, Vivian Malone Jones said the two of them talked about forgiveness.