How music bridged the color gap

In 1963, Wendell “Wilkie” Gunn walked onto Florence State College’s campus as the first ever black student enrolled.

When the Tuscumbia native first applied at Florence State College, he faced some challenges. In the summer of 1963, Gunn visited the college and was told he could not be admitted under Alabama law, but if he sued the school in federal court, the college would have to admit him. One lawsuit and a few months later, Gunn prepared for his first day at Florence State College.

In Gunn’s first few days, he was escorted from class to class by Dean Turner Allen for safety precautions. At Florence college, students exchanged a few stares and whispers. Gunn said his enrollment and appearance was different compared to everything that was happening in places such as Tuscaloosa and Selma.

“Looking back on it, it makes me think there was something special about the area,” Gunn said in a UNA press release. “The fact that it happened between 1963 and 1965, a time with a lot of turmoil, and the fact that my matriculation happened without incident is a testament to something.”

Many Southern schools had dramatic and even violent integration transitions. In 1963, Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse doors of the University of Alabama to physically block students from entering because they were black.

In 1954 schools in Alabama were ordered to integrate after the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. However, it was not until that schoolhouse door incident in 1963 that many schools followed the law.

Dennis Pruitt grew up in East Florence around the time of the Civil Rights Movement and said he vaguely remembers when Gunn was admitted into the college but the integration was different in Florence than it was in other cities.

“Being in a small town and being in the quad cities not as much big stuff happened,” Pruitt said. “I remember in the 1960s black and white students going to ball games together. At my elementary school (Weeden Elementary School) there were black kids and white kids but most of us were just friends as any other people were. It was not as big here as it was in larger cities but people were still aware of it.”

Pruitt said the 1950s were worse and remembered there were separate water fountains at the courthouse. One was labeled “Black” and one “White.”

Despite the civil rights issues that were happening at the time, Pruitt believes the Shoals’ music scene caused the area to be a few steps ahead of everyone.

Pruitt said with all the music stuff going on in Muscle Shoals, it was like people did not know much about the racial issues. He said FAME Recording Studios was a pioneer in this.

Music producer Rick Hall owned FAME and was known for working with black musicians in the 1950s and 1960s.

“It all started out with black music and I want to make that clear,” Hall said in an interview with Vice Media. “There was no friction or problem with blacks and whites playing together. In fact, we never thought of it.”

Arthur Alexander, an African-American musician, was the first person to have a hit record produced by Rick Hall at FAME with his song “You Better Move On.” This was the first hit record to come out of Muscle Shoals.

Although FAME moved locations often, it found its home on Avalon Avenue in the early 1960s, where it still sits today. The first record in the new studio was, “Steal Away” by Jimmy Hughes, a black man, in 1963.

FAME went on to produce hit records for hundreds of musicians, many of whom were black. Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Otis Redding are just a few of the musicians who came to the Shoals knowing there was acceptance.

The only people who know what the Shoals was really like during the 1960s and the civil rights movement were those who were part of it.

Regardless if it was because of the music or not, the Shoals area was an “uneventful” place to be during the civil rights movement. For now, that reputation will remain.

“The music industry was not segregated, they didn’t care,” Pruitt added. “The music brought people together. I know they might have had some trouble with Aretha Franklin when she was here but that’s because some white guy in the studio kept hitting on her.”