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The 'stand in the schoolhouse door,' 50 years later

One University of Alabama student has big dreams, motivated by the students who fought so hard to get an education there in 1963. NBC's Lester Holt reports.

By Amber Payne, Producer, NBC News

At the Boys and Girls Club of West Alabama, 300 children with unbridled energy are ordered to scream at the top of their lungs, three times.  

As their joyous shrieking fills the auditorium, Tyler Merriweather smiles and joins right in. 

Ten years ago Merriweather was a "club kid," as he affectionately calls them.  He found security, escape and emotional release from struggles at home. Today, the 18-year-old works as a mentor and counselor for their summer program. 

"I see a lot of myself in them," he said.  "I have to make sure that every day is a great day for them.  Because I don't know what their family situations are."

A proud product of the club, Merriweather knows that the program is much more than an after-school program for these children. 

"That is their safe haven. It's a place that gives them hope and gives them a sign that they can be greater than their circumstances," he said. 

Hope is something Merriweather knows a lot about.  A sophomore at the University of Alabama, he is the first in his family to go to college. Instead of attending a historically black college, Merriweather deliberately chose to attend a state school still scarred by an ugly moment in history.  

AP, file

Gov. George Wallace blocks the entrance to the University of Alabama as he turned back a federal officer attempting to enroll two black students at the university campus in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on June 11, 1963.

Fifty years ago, on June 11, 1963, Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway of the Foster Auditorium, physically barring two African-American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from entering.

Wallace, who proclaimed the rallying cry in his inaugural address, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,"  was determined to keep a campaign promise to block integration at the university, reflecting a sentiment felt in much of the Deep South.

Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach delivered a stern warning in front of media and hundreds of onlookers, asking the governor to "responsibly step aside" -- but he boldly refused. 

That afternoon, President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard to force Wallace to stand down.  And the governor, flanked by state troopers, peacefully stepped aside. 

With that, Vivian Malone and James Hood walked through the doors, past Wallace, and into history. 

AP, file

Vivian Malone and James Hood stand in the doorway of Foster Auditorium to hold what they called their "first and final news conference" after the two African-American students registered at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963. Earlier, Gov. George Wallace had barred their way from the same doorway.

President Kennedy told the nation in a nationally televised address that he believed the fight for civil rights was a "moral issue" not just a regional one.

"If an American because his skin is dark cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?"

Those words still resonate with Dr. Art Dunning, a student at the University of Alabama in the 1966.  He remembers very clearly what it was like to be one of just a handful of African-American students. 

"I was in my third year before someone sat by me in a classroom," he said. 

Dr. Art Dunning and student Tyler Merriweather reflect on the University of Alabama's pivotal role in the civil rights movement.

Dr. Dunning, now a professor and senior research fellow at the university, is still troubled by how much intellectual capital was lost by the policies of the past.

"I'm really struck by how many generations out there could have succeeded here, had they been allowed to go here," he said.  "Yet I'm also excited by seeing these students who are here today succeeding and doing well."

Today, the student body is 33,000 and minority enrollment stands at 20 percent with African-Americans comprising 12 percent. 

Growing up in Tuscaloosa, Merriweather has seen progress in his short lifetime but feels  personal responsibility to open new doors for those coming in behind him.

"They grew up in a time where racism was supposedly ending however a lot of people were still stuck in their ways. It ended as a law, but didn't end as a way of life."

He is proud to be from Alabama.

Standing in the cover of the clock tower emblazoned with the bronze images and the words of the civil rights pioneers before him, Merriweather, an early education major, proclaims that he is determined to make a name for himself at the University of Alabama -- but also literally.

"My name will be engraved here at the university," he vowed.

Merriweather knows he is following in their footsteps, but is looking to carve his own unique path.

"It wasn't just them fighting, I felt like it was me fighting," he said. "Because they are me. They are my past, and I am the future."

PhotoBlog: Archive pictures of the 'stand in the schoolhouse door'