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The civil rights movement and CSU

January 15, 2014
By Melinda Swenson

Plenty was happening on the national stage in 1964 when the Civil Rights Bill was signed into law. At Colorado State University, frank discussions on issues of racial equality were precipitated by petitions, guest editorials to the Collegian, University initiatives, and invited speakers. One such speaker was Alabama Governor George Wallace, an adamant segregationist.

Democratic Governor George Wallace stands in a door at the University of Alabama attempting to block the integration of the school.The following is an account given by Colorado State University Professor Emeritus George Wallace (B.S., 67), College of Natural Resources, of his encounter with Alabama Governor George Wallace.

It was May 28, 1964, about a month before the Civil Rights Act was passed. At the time, Prof. Wallace was a freshman at CSU and was asked to pick the governor up at the Denver airport.

Fetching the governor

The traffic on US 287 was light. CSU freshman George Wallace kept it at 55 mph. He couldn’t afford to be pulled over by the State Patrol. They’d never believe him if he told them he was on his way to Stapleton Airport in Denver to pick up the governor of Alabama.

In a way, he was an unlikely choice for fetching the governor for his evening talk at the Lory Student Center.

Governor Wallace was a stanch segregationist who promised his constituents that he’d protect Alabama from integration. In June of 1963, he’d stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama to prevent two black students from entering and registering.

President Kennedy had to federalize the Alabama National Guard and Wallace had to be ordered by a general to step aside (which Wallace did, after making a prepared speech).

CSU student George Wallace, on the other hand, was in support of civil rights legislation.George Wallace as a CSU undergraduate on a trek into the Rawah Wilderness. Photo by former Collegian editor and CSU alumnus Pat Noel.

“I went to pick him up for no other reason than some people in student government thought that it would be a novel thing to do since I had the same name,” Wallace said.

“I wasn’t even in student government. I was more on the fringe, living in Rockwell Hall, a dorm that tended to have non-traditional students, anti-frat types, cowboys, and misfits. I had to borrow a friend’s car because mine was a real beater.”

Wallace was pretty clean-cut to begin with (he was in the Marines Corps Reserve), but he’d put on a dress shirt and tie.

He wasn’t particularly concerned about impressing the governor; he wanted to represent CSU well. Foremost in his mind was, what could he expect from his interactions with the Alabama statesman?

After parking the car at the airport, Wallace met the governor at the gate and introduced himself.

“I see we have our names in common,” Wallace replied with a big smile.

“That may be one of the few things we have in common, Governor,” Wallace had answered.

“My remark didn’t seem to faze him,” he said. “On the drive back, he was friendly and easy to talk to. I tried to think of something courteous to say.

"Finally I said, ‘Even though I see things differently than you do, I think you do a good job of representing your constituents.’ It was a bit of a dig since I meant those who shared his racial biases.”

President Johnson and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. congratulate one another on the signing of the Civil Rights Bill. July 2, 1964.

Students, faculty pack ballroom

Later that night, people packed the Main Ballroom at the LSC to hear Wallace speak.

The Collegian reported there were 1,500 in attendance,” said Gordon “Hap” Hazard, student center building manager at the time. “The ballroom only held 1,200 chairs, so they were sitting in the aisles and standing in the lobby, craning their necks to see in.”

During his talk, Wallace attacked the Civil Rights Bill, especially the public accommodations section. He called the bill the “Civil Wrongs Bill,” and the “Involuntary Servitude Act.”

The Collegian recaps the year

The day after Gov. Wallace spoke at CSU, the Collegian offered a recap of events focusing on civil rights held on campus during 1963-1964 school year.

“Civil rights became a topic of discussion for every interested citizen in the nation,” wrote the Collegian, “and CSU students in particular were given the chance for discussion on almost a dozen different occasions, whether it was speeches, movies, university action, or a petition.” The paper reported that one such petition was sent to Alabama expressing outrage at the abuse of civil rights in that southern state.

“Students not only heard such self-made experts on racial discrimination as Ross Barnett [the former governor of Mississippi], George Wallace, and George Lincoln Rockwell [President of the American Nazi Party], but were given the opportunity to hear such outstanding men as James Meredith [the first black to enroll at the University of Mississippi] and Dick Gregory [a black comedian].”

Professor Emeritus George Wallace today.The Collegian reported that the CSU and Fort Collins communities experienced setbacks as well as strides toward racial equality, and ended with the statement, “And the thought of a new year kindles hope…”

President Johnson signs civil rights bill

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill.

In his remarks, he said, “We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty, yet millions are being deprived of those blessings, not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin… Our constitution, the foundation of our republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight, forbids it.”

Professor George Wallace is retired and still an active associate of the Center for Protected Area Management and Training in the Warner College of Natural Resources. In addition to his career at CSU, he has farmed and ranched his property 13 miles north of Fort Collins for 45 years.

Read more

Celebrate 50 years of the Civil Rights Act on MLK Day: Events happening on and around campus Jan. 20.

Martin Luther King Jr. - His way with words

Contact: Melinda Swenson