DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
A quiet hero of the civil rights movement died this week in Atlanta. Vivian Malone Jones was the first African-American graduate of the University of Alabama. She was one of two black students federal authorities helped enroll in defiance of then Governor George Wallace.
(Soundbite of vintage speech)
Governor GEORGE WALLACE (Alabama): I stand here today as governor of this sovereign state and refuse to willingly submit to illegal usurpation of power by the central government.
ELLIOTT: It was June of 1963 and the wiry Wallace stood stiff, hands behind his back in the doorway of the university's Foster Auditorium where students registered for classes. Vivian Malone was 20 years old, a transfer student who was determined to get the advanced business classes she couldn't get at an all-black college.
(Soundbite of 2003 interview)
Ms. VIVIAN MALONE JONES: My goal was to go to the University of Alabama, and I didn't feel that I should sneak in. I didn't feel that I should have to go around the back door. If he was standing in the door, I had every right in the world to face him and to go to school.
ELLIOTT: That was from an interview I had with Jones in 2003. She could still recall in vivid detail her ride with federal marshalls to Tuscaloosa that hot summer day in 1963, how the drink machines on campus had been emptied so that no one could throw Coke bottles, and how state troopers formed a ring around Foster Auditorium.
The building was designated a national historic landmark last spring. But when I was a student at the University of Alabama in the '80s, Foster Auditorium was just an ordinary place--the gym where'd you play a pick-up game of basketball. There was no plaque noting its place in history, nothing to tell the integrated student body how a few brave, young people once walked through these doors risking their lives just to get an education.
In our interview, Jones recalled her little sister receiving bomb threats on the phone at the family's home in Mobile and how some students and even teachers mistreated her on campus. But somehow, after that one very public standoff with Governor Wallace, she tried not to be distracted by the symbol she had become.
(Soundbite of 2003 interview)
Ms. JONES: In my heart I was a normal student, and I made up in my mind, this is where I'm supposed to be, and I went about my school life and it really worked out fine. It really did. I took myself out of the role of being maybe some kind of heroine or some kind of special person. I just said, `I am here. I'm a student, and I'm going to be a student.'
ELLIOTT: Shamefully, I didn't know much about Vivian Malone Jones until 1996 when I covered a ceremony where the Wallace family gave her an award of courage. There, at the Alabama state capitol, where Jefferson Davis took his oath as president of the Confederacy and where Governor George Wallace had once declared segregation forever, Jones came to meet face to face for the first time the man who had tried to stop her from getting the college education she wanted. By then, Wallace was a feeble old man in a wheelchair. His voice was soft and raspy; his hearing was failing. Jones said it was significant that they had come full circle.
(Soundbite from 2003 interview)
Ms. JONES: I asked him how he felt about what happened in 1963, and he said that he felt that it was wrong, that it shouldn't have happened. He thinks that the state of Alabama is better now than it was then as a result of what has happened through the integration and desegregation of the schools here.
ELLIOTT: Also at that meeting, Jones said there was talk of forgiveness. Her gracious spirit and humble demeanor belied the lasting impact of her historic step through the schoolhouse door. Vivian Malone Jones died after suffering a stroke this week. She was 63.