At the Boys and Girls Club of West Alabama, 300 children with unbridled energy are ordered to scream at the top of their lungs, three times.
As their joyous shrieking fills the auditorium, Tyler Merriweather smiles and joins right in.
Ten years ago Merriweather was a “club kid,” as he affectionately calls them. He found security, escape and emotional release from struggles at home. Today, the 18-year-old works as a mentor and counselor for their summer program.
“I see a lot of myself in them,” he said. “I have to make sure that every day is a great day for them. Because I don’t know what their family situations are.”
A proud product of the club, Merriweather knows that the program is much more than an after-school program for these children.
“That is their safe haven. It’s a place that gives them hope and gives them a sign that they can be greater than their circumstances,” he said.
Hope is something Merriweather knows a lot about. A sophomore at the University of Alabama, he is the first in his family to go to college. Instead of attending a historically black college, Merriweather deliberately chose to attend a state school still scarred by an ugly moment in history.
Fifty years ago, on June 11, 1963, Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway of the Foster Auditorium, physically barring two African-American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from entering.
Wallace, who proclaimed the rallying cry in his inaugural address, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” was determined to keep a campaign promise to block integration at the university, reflecting a sentiment felt in much of the Deep South.
Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach delivered a stern warning in front of media and hundreds of onlookers, asking the governor to “responsibly step aside” — but he boldly refused.
That afternoon, President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard to force Wallace to stand down. And the governor, flanked by state troopers, peacefully stepped aside.
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