The stop came as more than two dozen representatives and senators made an annual civil rights pilgrimage, including Rep. John Lewis of Georgia (D-Ga.)
Lewis, who was beaten by law officers while participating in the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965, wiped away tears Friday while recalling the impact of Wallace’s defiant stance for segregation.
Lewis grew up in south Alabama but had never before visited the Alabama campus. He said he was overwhelmed by seeing Foster Auditorium, where Wallace staged his stand in a showy attempt to prevent two black students, James Hood and Vivian Malone, from enrolling at the university.
Lewis, who was 23 at the time, recalled seeing news footage of the landmark event, in which Wallace faced down a Justice Department official at the doorway to the auditorium.
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach told Wallace he wanted him to abide by a court order to allow the two students to register for classes. Wallace refused. President John F. Kennedy later federalized the Alabama National Guard. Wallace backed down later that day, and Hood and Malone registered for classes.
“I watched Governor Wallace standing in the door, and I heard the deputy attorney general saying, ‘Governor, stand back,’” said Lewis. “And to come here is almost too much.”
Jones died in 2005, and Hood died in Gadsen in January at age 70.
The building where Wallace made his stand has since been renovated, and a commemorative bell tower now stands in a plaza outside. The university saved the original wood-and-glass doors from 1963, though, and lawmakers walked past them as they entered the building.
One of Wallace’s children, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, told a hushed crowd during a program that her family never discussed what her father had done despite the fact that his stand became a powerful symbol of white Southern resistance to court-ordered racial integration.
“When the subject was broached it was brushed aside,” said Kennedy, who was 13 at the time.
George Wallace, who went on to serve four terms as governor and run unsuccessfully for president, later apologized for his actions during the civil rights era. He died in 1998.
Friday’s program was part of the 13th annual Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage, sponsored by the Washington-based Faith and Politics Institute. Lawmakers visited the campus because this summer marks the 50th anniversary of Wallace’s stand; they also will make stops in Birmingham and Montgomery.
Lawmakers will be in Selma on Sunday with Vice President Joe Biden to recall the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march, in which Lewis was hurt.
Black students enrolled at Alabama despite Wallace’s stand, and the university’s student body is now almost 13 percent black. Minority students walked alongside whites as members of Congress and others got off buses outside the auditorium.
Alabama’s lone black member of Congress, Rep. Terri Sewell, noted how much times had changed since Wallace ran on a segregationist platform.
“Once African-Americans weren’t allowed to enter (the university), and now to be able to representAlabama in the U.S. Congress is such an honor,” she said.