To me, 50 years seems like a very long time. That’s more than half of the life of the average person. For us, a decade can seem forever. We’re so impatient that a year can seem like a long time to wait for a thing. But I sometimes forget that history is measured on a very different scale.
It was 50 years ago this week when Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace made his theatrical stand against federal demands that the University of Alabama admit black students. It’s remembered as “the stand in the schoolhouse door,” but it was purely symbolic.
In his 1962 campaign, Wallace had promised to fight to prevent racial integration of any Alabama schools. His dramatic stand was a popular political position at the time, but he knew he couldn’t win the battle. It was merely important for his political future that he be seen as standing up to the Kennedy administration.
Hundreds of Alabama state troopers and Alabama National Guard troops were surrounding the building on the UA campus where registration took place at the time. After President John F. Kennedy federalized the National Guard troops, Brig. Gen. Henry Graham officially told Wallace that he was acting at the direction of the president — and he ordered Wallace to step aside.
Wallace stepped aside without incident. There was no violence in Tuscaloosa. The two black students were enrolled. The university and the state slowly moved on. Even Wallace came to regret his role in segregation and apologized to blacks, who became a key constituency when he won election for the very last time, in 1982.
When I was a student at Alabama, the student body was about 10 percent black. It’s about 12 percent black today. The university actively recruits qualified black students, and anyone with the test scores to get in will be admitted.
There are different ways to look at this incident from 50 years ago. The simple one — and the most common one — is to ask why it was necessary for those racist southerners to go through this much trouble to achieve something as simple and obvious as allowing people of all races access to public facilities such as the university.
(The people who sneeringly take this approach frequently prefer to point fingers at the South, but conveniently forget white parents in Boston turning to violence when racial integration came to that city. Racial problems are much more widespread and common than people sometimes like to remember.)
There’s another way I choose to look at this incident, though. From the standpoint of history, 50 years is like the blink of an eye. We see change as happening slowly, but in historical terms, it’s happening very, very quickly. It would be nice if positive change came in a day or a week or a month, but it takes years or decades. Even at 50 years, though, that’s nothing in the long term.
Many of us today are frustrated at the state of politics. Those of us who oppose the coercive state find it hard to see anything changing. But change is coming. Maybe not as quickly as we would like. It might take a decade. Or a few decades. It could even take a hundred years. We might go through a period of chaos when it’s not clear what’s going to happen. Some areas could see new forms of oppression.
But change will come. I think the next big step in the evolution of governance will be private governance that allows people to control their own property and their own lives by living under rules of their choosing. For some people, that’s crazy talk, but people who lived under powerful royal families would have seen it as crazy talk to imagine that power could be more widely dispersed. What I see happening is just the next logical step beyond that.
The only point I want to leave you with is that individuals and history measure time on very different scales. It might seem to us that the tyrants and arrogant politicians have always held power and always will. But change is coming. Maybe not in the time frame we’d like. We might or might not see it.
Remember that history and the changes it brings will outlive all of us. Change is coming, even if we can’t see it yet — just as those disenfranchised blacks would have had trouble imagining the University of Alabama today.