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B.J. Hollars pens book about historic conflict over desegregation in Alabama

July 8, 2013

Editor's note: The following story about B.J. Hollars, UW-Eau Claire assistant professor of English, appeared in the July 7 issue of the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram and is reprinted with permission. The story is written by UW-Eau Claire alumnus Eric Lindquist.

By Eric Lindquist
Eau Claire Leader-Telegram staff 

 B.J. Hollars
B.J. Hollars, who teaches creative writing at UW-Eau Claire, recently completed a book about the civil rights movement inspired by the four years he spent as a graduate student and instructor at the University of Alabama. The book, titled "Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa," was released in March.(Photo by Shane Opatz, Eau Claire Leader-Telegram)

Fifty years ago — on June 11, 1963 — Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway to block two highly qualified black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama.

The famous confrontation, often referred to as the "stand in the schoolhouse door," ended later that day with Wallace stepping aside and reluctantly allowing students James Hood and Vivian Malone to desegregate the university.

The historic day in the civil rights movement is at the center of a new nonfiction book by B.J. Hollars, an assistant professor of English at UW-Eau Claire who earned his master's degree at the University of Alabama.

The 288-page book, "Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa," was published in March by the University of Alabama Press.

Yet even though Hollars attended the Tuscaloosa university for three years and taught English there for a year, he never so much as glanced at the doorway to Foster Auditorium, the site of the standoff, in his first two years as a graduate student. In fact, Hollars acknowledged in a recent interview, most of the little he knew about the incident he learned from a scene in the movie "Forrest Gump."

Not only did Hollars have little understanding of the university's tumultuous past history regarding desegregation, but he quickly realized most of the students he taught were in the same boat.

"I wanted to try and change that, so I wrote the book," said Hollars, who increasingly began to take notice of the historical markers he would pass every few blocks as he walked his dog in Tuscaloosa, where the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan once lived.

"History is alive and well in the South in a way I don't always notice in the North," he said.

Hollars rectified the shortcoming in his personal historical knowledge — and set out to add to the national understanding of the events surrounding his alma mater's civil rights milestones — through the book project.

His three-year research and writing pilgrimage included generating firsthand accounts from about 20 personal interviews with participants and witnesses, along with delving into old newspaper reports, previously classified documents and university archives.

"I spent a lot of time riding my bike from house to house and knocking on doors to talk to people who actually were there or involved in the movement," he said, noting many Tuscaloosa residents report vivid memories of seeing Wallace drive by five decades ago.

A recurring question, as the 29-year-old Hollars talks to groups about his latest book, revolves around why, as he put it, black folks in the South were willing to talk freely to a "white, carpetbagging Northerner."

Though initially Hollars chalked it up to his interviewing technique and high journalistic standards, the humility that shines through in his writing also is evident in his sharing of the explanation he received from a black woman with Tuscaloosa ties.

"Honey, when we saw you riding up to our churches and our barbershops with your little backpack and notebook, well ... you looked like you were about 10 years old. We all figured you couldn't hurt a fly," the woman told him.

Regardless of why people shared their memories with him, Hollars is glad they did and believes it enabled him to tell the behind-the-scenes story of the University of Alabama's 1956 and 1963 desegregation attempts and the sometimes-violent struggle for racial equality in Tuscaloosa in a way that hasn't been done before.

"Most of the scholarship on this was done a long time ago," he said. "I tried to recontextualize it through the lens of some of the people 50 years later who perhaps weren't willing to talk so much 30 years ago or 20 years ago."

Jessica Lacher-Feldman, now head of special collections at Hill Memorial Library at Louisana State University but a former librarian at W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library at the University of Alabama, worked with Hollars on his book research.

She described "Opening the Doors" as providing a thorough perspective on what was happening at the University of Alabama during the struggle for integration.

"He meticulously poured through documents, photographs and other materials to make his book come alive," she said in an email, praising Hollars' thorough research and commitment to writing.

"In my 13 years at the University of Alabama, I knew a great deal about the ongoing civil rights struggles on the campus, and with B.J.'s book, I learned even more," she said.

Book jacket reviews, including one, ironically, by "Forrest Gump" author Winston Groom, also suggest the effort was successful.

"B.J. Hollars has written an important, fascinating, and timely book about the desegregation era," Groom wrote.

Linda Beito, co-author of "Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power," wrote that anyone who loves history will love Hollars' latest book and that "no other account gives a better background on this topic."

The book is sprinkled with personal anecdotes from folks who willingly recounted their large and small roles in Tuscaloosa's slice of American civil rights history.

One of the most fascinating eyewitness accounts came from African-American Rev. T.W. Linton, whom Hollars interviewed at Howard and Linton's Barbershop, where Linton has been cutting hair for more than 50 years.

"We were sitting here watching it on the news," Linton told Hollars, nodding to the TV in the corner of his memorabilia-filled shop. Linton went on to describe how he and the black patrons gathered around the small black-and-white screen were shocked when Wallace, whose inaugural promise had been "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," finally retreated to a waiting car.

"We just cheered and cheered," recalled Linton, who revealed that he once kept the personal phone numbers of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in his shirt pocket at all times.

Linton also shared the story of how the shop played a role in a failed 1956 attempt to desegregate the university. Student Autherine Lucy, whose admission was suspended on her third day of classes, was pelted with eggs by an angry mob of at least 2,000 segregationists. She was taken to the shop to have the yellow yolks washed from her black hair.

The visit allowed Hollars to see and touch the old black barber chair where a traumatized Lucy sat while the runny remnants of intolerance were removed.

That kind of on-the-ground experience was key to Hollars' efforts to make his retelling of the momentous events come alive for today's readers.

"I try to make my nonfiction read with a vividness and a clear narrative arc and some real character development and hope to bring these incredibly valuable moments of history back to life," said Hollars, a creative writing specialist whose previous book, "Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America," was his first venture into nonfiction.

Not only did Hollars visit the sites of the major events chronicled in the book, but he routinely toted his laptop in his backpack and tried as often as possible to write from the actual spot he was describing.

"I wanted to give myself every reason to tell it as truthfully as I could, so it was valuable to me to let it wash over me," said Hollars, who seemed genuinely moved by the experience of shaking hands with people who had shaken hands with such luminaries as King and Kennedy.

"Did it change the writing? Probably not. But it changed me."

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