On June 11, 1963, the eyes of the nation watched, through the black and white lenses of news cameras, as Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway of Foster Auditorium in a symbolic gesture of defiance against the enrollment of two African-American students at the University of Alabama. Just across the street, Mobilian Mary Jo Matranga watched the historical event unfold through a dorm window at Burke Hall.
“We had a mandatory roll call at the dorm, ” Matranga remembers. “And as soon as they told us what was happening, we were told not to leave. We went to the windows, and all you could see were news trucks.”
During the fight for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s, images of the stand in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama and marches in Selma and Birmingham defined Alabama. Matranga, now an interior designer in Mobile, grew up in Birmingham during segregation’s final decades, when ideas and practices now viewed as unacceptable were the norm.
It was during those turbulent years that Matranga remembers her family squaring off against racism and the Ku Klux Klan. When Matranga was 9 years old, the Klan picketed her father’s store in Birmingham after her family took their black housekeeper along on vacation and allowed her to share their room.
“We went by his store and the Klan was marching in front with robes and torches, ” Matranga says. “My mother was telling us to get on the floorboard of the car.” Matranga’s father was able to scare off the protestors by threatening to run them over with his car, but that image of her father being persecuted has shaped her views on race since that day.
“My dad and mother really believed in human rights. They never saw people as above or below them, and they gave us a real sense that we were all equal.”
Matranga was confronted with racism again at the University of Alabama in 1963 when she lived in Burke Hall alongside Vivian Malone, one of the two black students who had very recently integrated the University.
“She was a quiet girl, and she really just made you conscious as a human being. Even if you wanted to see in terms of black and white, as a human being, how could you not feel some sort of compassion?”
Describing Malone as a “very soft-spoken girl, ” Matranga believes that Malone made the transition easier for herself by avoiding unnecessary attention. “In a way, she was the perfect person for it. She did it as peacefully as she could.”
Eventually, Malone became as close to a regular student as she could be – talking, eating and playing cards with the other girls. However, not all of Tuscaloosa accepted Malone the way most students did.
“I loved the city of Tuscaloosa, but the truth is I saw a big divide. There was the Ku Klux Klan on one side and educated people on the other.”
And according to Matranga, even the National Guard was subject to biases. “We always thought of them as segregationists.” As for the numerous bomb scares at Burke Hall: “They (the National Guardsmen) just wanted to see girls in their nighties. There was no bomb.”
The integration of the University did not stop the efforts of the bigots in Tuscaloosa. After graduation, Matranga worked at a printing company while her husband, Dominick, attended law school. While working at this job, the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Robert Shelton, approached her about a freelance job to design a new logo for “The Fiery Cross, ” the organization’s newsletter. Her response probably came as a surprise.
“I said, ‘Mr. Shelton, my grandparents were Italian immigrants, and I don’t think your organization liked them. And I’m Catholic, and I don’t think your organization likes Catholics. Don’t think I’m being arrogant; I could certainly use the money because of my husband being in law school, but I just couldn’t do it in good conscience.’”
Though her words were brave, Matranga admits being fearful. “My heart was in my throat, ” she says.
In 1965, Dominick graduated, and the couple moved to Mobile, allowing Matranga to see a less turbulent side of Alabama. She credits Mayor Joseph Langan’s work with community leaders such as John LeFlore and Father Albert Foley of Spring Hill College with making the
Port City a relative bright spot in one of the darkest periods in Alabama’s history.
“Mayor Joe Langan did so much to prevent rioting in Mobile. He was such a contrast to Birmingham with Bull Connor. Langan worked hard to create a peaceful transition; I think he was one of those blessings that Mobile had during that period.”
Through the eyes of Mary Jo Matranga, moments from our state’s history are seen from a different angle. This woman’s perspective – from the floorboard of her father’s car, from a window at Burke Hall, during card games in her dorm with Vivian Malone – provides stories from that era beyond the reach of news cameras. And 52 years after watching Gov. Wallace’s famous stand, Matranga’s attention is still turned towards civil rights, an issue she says is far from resolved.
“If we could communicate better, perhaps we would find that we have more things that we agree on than we disagree on.”
text by Cameron Kiszla