The Opportunity of Crisis: Integrating the University of Alabama

Film screening and panel

Fri, 02/29/2008
3:30 - 6:30 PM, McCosh 50
Event Category: 
Special Event

In celebration of the 45th anniversary of the historic racial integration of the University of Alabama (June 1963), the Program in American Studies, Center for African American Studies, and Program in Law and Public Affairs, will mark the occasion with a screening of the documentary, Crisis: The Making of a Presidential Commitment. A panel discussion including former U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, who served as Deputy Attorney General under John F. Kennedy; John Doar, who prosecuted the Mississippi Burning Trial; and filmmakers, Bob Drew and D.A. Pennebaker. The panel will be moderated by Professors Valerie Smith and Sean Wilentz.


Forty-five years ago, the combined forces of the civil-rights movement and the federal government won a landmark victory in the battle for racial equality and civil rights -- the integration of the University of Alabama. In a super-charged drama, Alabama’s segregationist governor George C. Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to try and halt the admission of two African-American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood – and was turned aside. That same night, President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech to the nation that offered the most eloquent plea for racial justice delivered by any president since Abraham Lincoln.

The events were in turn the subject of a trailblazing documentary film, Crisis: The Making of a Presidential Commitment, directed by Robert Drew. With camera crews in Montgomery, Washington, and Tuscaloosa, Drew and his associates captured all of the tension that lay behind the confrontation, including candid footage of the key participants, including Malone, Hood, Wallace, and Kennedy, as well as the determined officials working at the Justice Department under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Those officials included two eminent Princetonians, John Doar ’44 and Nicholas Katzenbach ’45.

On February 29, 2008, the Program in American Studies, the Center for African-American Studies, and the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University will commemorate these events with a program, “The Opportunity of Crisis: Integrating the University of Alabama.” After a screening of Crisis, two panels, including figures who were directly involved, will reflect on what happened in June 1963, and its enduring legacy.

First, director Robert Drew, along with one of his cameramen, the distinguished filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, will discuss the making of the film and its place in the history of American cinema as well as American politics. In the second session, John Doar and Nicholas Katzenbach will discuss the actual fateful occurrences and the lessons they hold for the present.


John Doar ’44, entered the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice as First Assistant in 1960, and went on to serve as Assistant Attorney General from 1965 until 1967. After six years as president of the Bedford-Stuyvesant D & S Corporation, Doar became special counsel to the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives in 1973, in connection with the committee’s work on the impeachment of Richard M. Nixon, prior to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. From 1983 to 1988, he was involved, as counsel to the Eleventh Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals, in the investigation that led to the impeachment of District Judge Alcee L. Hastings. He is currently senior counsel at Doar, Rieck, Kaley, and Mack, in New York City.

Robert Drew is a filmmaker and director, best known for his pioneering work in the documentary form familiarly known as cinema verité. In his early work as an editor at Life magazine, Drew specialized in candid still picture essays, and, during a stint as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1955, he began working on theories of translating that form into film. His first noted effort in that vein, Primary (1960), took as its subject the race between Hubert H. Humphrey and John F. Kennedy in the Wisconsin Democratic primary. That effort paved the way for Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment. Since his early film work as head of Drew Associates with filmmakers including Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and Albert Maysles, Drew, along with his wife, the producer Anne Drew, has expanded to cover the arts and natural sciences as well as politics. He has received numerous honors for his contributions to cinema, including the Career Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association

Nicholas Katzenbach ’45, served as attorney-advisor to the Office of General Counsel of the Secretary of the Air Force before joining the faculties of the Yale Law School (1952-56) and the University of Chicago Law School (1956-60). He joined the Department of Justice in 1961 as Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel, and served as Deputy Attorney General from 1962 to 1965, when President Johnson named him Attorney General of the United States. After leaving the Justice Department in 1966, Katzenbach served as Under Secretary of State until 1969. Since then, he has worked extensively in the private sector, most notably for IBM and MCI Communications.

D.A. Pennebaker is a filmmaker and director who, along with Robert Drew, is considered one of the giants in cinema verité. After working on Primary and Crisis, he filmed and directed what many critics consider his best-known work, Don’t Look Back, on Bob Dylan’s concert tour of England in 1965. Since then, Pennebaker’s work has included pathbreaking work about music as well as politics, including Monterey Pop, Town Bloody Hall, and The War Room, which received the D.W. Griffith Award for Best Documentary of the Year as well as an Academy Award nomination. Some of the previously unreleased footage on Dylan’s famous 1966 world tour was featured in Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home. With his wife, Chris Hegedus, with whom he has co-directed since the mid-1970s, he now heads Pennebaker Hegedus Films.

Valerie Smith is the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature in the Department of English and Director of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton. A specialist in African American literature and culture, with special interests in black feminist theory and film studies, Professor Smith had written and edited several important books, including Not Just Race, Not Just Gender: Black Feminist Readings, which appeared in 1998. The recipient of Guggenheim and Fletcher fellowships, she is completing a book on the civil rights movement in cultural memory.

Sean Wilentz is Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the American Revolutionary Era in the Department of History at Princeton. His books include The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, which was awarded the Bancroft Prize in 2006, and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008, which will appear in May 2008.