On February 29, Princeton commemorated the struggle for Civil Rights with an event titled “The Opportunity of Crisis: Integrating the University of Alabama.” Hosted by the department of American Studies, the Center for African American Studies, and the Program in Law and Public Affairs, the program centered around the documentary “Crisis: The Making of a Presidential Commitment,” by cinema vérité director Robert Drew. The screening was followed by a discussion with Drew, D.A. Pennebaker (who worked as a cameraman on the project), and Princeton alumni Nicholas Katzenbach and Joan Doar. Both Doar and Katzenbach served as Assistant Attorney Generals in the sixties, and the two men played crucial roles in the fight to integrate Alabama schools.
“Crisis” follows all of the key players in government through the events of 1963, as George Wallace, Alabama’s segregationist Governor, blocks the entrance of two African American students to the University of Alabama, in defiance of a federal decree put out by President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. As a chronicle of the fight to integrate The University of Alabama against George Wallace’s will, “Crisis” succeeds brilliantly, providing history as seen from behind closed doors. The viewer is treated to shots of J.F.K. in the Oval Office debating whether or not to deliver his heralded Civil Rights address, and of Bobby Kennedy deciding how to handle Wallace without creating too much of a scene. All the while, Katzenbach prepares to confront the Alabama Governor at the school’s entrance, while Doar briefs the two African American students on how to handle the situation. The film even provides candid footage of George Wallace in his Alabama home, where he waves goodbye to his African American maid, before leaving to fight against her rights and equality.
As “Crisis” builds up to the showdown at the entrance of the University of Alabama, where Katzenbach politely requests that George Wallace peacefully step down, the tension is on par with that of any thriller. What makes Drew’s documentary so compelling, however, is that this tension is not artificially created by the filmmaker, but organically brought about by the historical events, which he lets play out at length, with minimal editing and commentary.
In the discussion held after the screening, all the panelists looked back on the events of 1963 with nostalgia. They discussed the value of the film as a historical record, and lamented that more candid footage of presidential decisions did not exist in records. They acknowledged how lucky the country was to have had the Kennedys in charge in 1963, and how tragic their loss was so shortly thereafter. Despite their old age, the speakers had their memories intact, and spent much of the discussion trading insightful and amusing anecdotes about J.F.K., Bobby Kennedy, L.B.J., and George Wallace.
Unfortunately, the venue was nearly empty, and the countless vacant seats in McCosh 50 made the crowd of senior citizens, professors, and no more than a dozen undergrads seem like a sorry excuse for an audience. Fortunately, the disappointing turnout did little to hurt the quality of the conversation, or the mood in the auditorium. The panelists were content to relive and discuss the historical events of 1963 once again with old friends. And the crowd – well, we were happy to listen.