Book review by Jane Self
In “Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s,” Earl H. Tilford takes on a daunting task.
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Using approximately a 12-year period of the University of Alabama’s history, he paints those years against a backdrop of all the other important events going on around the country.
During the years 1958 to 1970, the “conflict” in Vietnam became an undeclared war, the violence escalating so much that many former supporters turned against it.
The Civil Rights movement heated up as schools began the slow and arduous process of desegregating following the 1954 Supreme Court decision that separate public schools for black and white students was unconstitutional.
University students found their voices and demanded more freedom. Women also found their voices and started advocating for more rights. Drugs became popular and easily accessible.
And Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant arrived from Texas to turn around Alabama’s faltering football team. Make no mistake – a winning football team was a big deal then just as it is now.
Also during that time, the country witnessed shocking assassinations of President John Kennedy, his brother Bobby a few years later and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Recognizing the challenging times ahead, the university’s Board of Trustees wooed Frank Rose away from Transylvania College in Lexington, KY, in 1957 to take the helm at Alabama.
As Tilford proves in “Turning the Tide,” this was clearly one of the smartest decisions ever made by the Board.
Before Rose was even sworn in as president in 1958, he lured Coach Bryant away from Texas A&M.
When I entered the University of Alabama as a wide-eyed freshman more than 50 years ago in the fall of 1964, I had very little understanding of what was going on in the world around me.
All I knew was I had reached a milestone in my life – going off to college.
For me, that meant freedom to party and have fun. And broaden my horizons along the way.
We had already won a National Championship in football under Bryant and on the way to two more my first years at Alabama.
I wasn’t totally oblivious to historic times. I had experienced the nation’s shock when President Kennedy was assassinated the year before.
I couldn’t believe Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door that same year, blocking the enrollment of black students to Alabama.
I remember thinking how stupid it was to be worried about black people going to school – what could it possibly hurt?
But a lot of significant happenings on campus and around the country during my years at UA went unnoticed by me. As I grew older and more astute, I recognized the significance of many events I hadn’t paid that much attention to previously.
And this book provided an even deeper understanding of those times.
When my sister, Carol Self, sent me a copy of the book, I thought it would be kind of fun to read since she and her former husband, Jack Drake, were key players of the book and I knew several others.
And I was in the middle of it all from 1964 until I graduated in 1968 and moved to New Orleans.
But the book was much more than fun to read. I learned a lot I didn’t know and hadn’t ever bothered to put together.
It was thought-provoking and stimulating as well. I kept stopping in the middle of an incident to map on what I was doing at the time.
Do I remember that? Where was I and why didn’t I know about it?
Tilford’s research is thorough and the way he set up the book is brilliant. Although I didn’t know him, he was in the same class at UA that I was in and admits that doing the research for this book opened his eyes to areas he had missed as well.
I have to agree with what many have already said about the book. Anyone who ever attended the University of Alabama or knew people who did, particularly during those critical years, should read this book.
There’s likely a plethora of facts or incidents that you never knew or have forgotten you knew.
And as Jack Drake pointed out in his foreword to the book, “anyone who ever attended the University of Alabama should be proud to read the way their school, and its students, handled the enormous challenges of this extraordinarily dynamic period.”
I know I am. But I would take it further than just people associated with the university enjoying this book.
I think anyone who was in their teens or early 20s during that time would get equal value from reading the book simply because of the perspective it provides for the times we lived through.
It’s definitely a book that leading edge Boomers can relate to regardless of where you went to college or even if you went.
It fits right into Baby Boomer media, describing those critical years when we were becoming adults.
Actually, anyone who is interested in the growing pains the South has been through would definitely appreciate this book.
Published by the University of Alabama Press, the book is available from the Press and most bookstores.