George Corley Wallace (1919-1998) is one of the most fascinating and controversial politicians in American history. His influence extends even to this day. He was governor of Alabama from 1963-1967, 1971-1979, and 1983-1987, being in office 5,848 days, the 3rd longest serving governor in US history.
Wallace was born in Clio, a town in Barbour County in southern Alabama. His family was of middle class education, but like so many they were very poor. As a boy, George travelled with his doctor grandfather making house calls, and saw first hand the misery of his neighbors, both black and white. As a teenager, he vowed that one day he would become governor, and make the lives of the poor better.
During WWII, he joined the Army Air Corps and flew missions over Japan. Although he already had a degree, he refused a commission, believing that being enlisted would help his political career. At this time he married Lurleen Burns. He was medically discharged due to spinal meningitis.
After his discharge he was appointed as deputy attorney general and in 1946 he served in the Alabama House of Representatives. For the time, he was a very liberal politician. In 1952 he became a Circuit Judge, well known for his strong support of the poor and equal treatment of blacks in court.
Wallace was still a segregationist at heart, and needed an issue to help him advance his career. He defied federal court orders for voting records and was cited for criminal contempt of court in 1959. He backed down in time to avoid jail, but won the hearts of the local white population.
While the above was occurring, Wallace had joined the Democratic primary for governor in 1958. His opponent, John Patterson was strongly supported by the Ku Klux Klan, and used Wallace’s previous court decisions and endorsement by the NAACP to crush him.
After this defeat, George Wallace showed a radical change in personality. He began to drink heavily and have numerous affairs, almost completely ignoring his wife and growing family for politics. And he had a new agenda. As he said to a friend, “Seymore, you know why I lost that governor’s race? … I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again.”
Wallace would become the poster child for segregation and white supremacy. An unknown number of men, women, and children would be murdered because of his words, and hundreds of thousands more suffered as he gave voice to white rage. Only 5 bullets would keep him from becoming president of the United States.
Wallace wrapped himself in white power and symbols of the Confederacy. His main speech writer was a Klansman named Asa Carter, whose Klan group had once castrated a black man, and who later wrote “The Outlaw Josie Wales.” In 1960 he won the primary, and in the end carried 96% of the vote in the general election.
In his inaugural speech he said,
“Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation today . . .segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever. ”
The roar of the crowd was deafening. Racism and segregation, covered by the code words state’s rights, would become the hallmark of his administration.
In 1963, Wallace called out the National Guard and State troopers to prevent two blacks students from attending classes at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Federal troops were being prepared to be deployed into Alabama at a moment’s notice. On June 11, 1963, he physically stood in the doorway and prevented the two students from entering the school. President Kennedy federalized the National Guard, and their commander ordered Governor Wallace to stand aside or be arrested. Once again he backed down, and his fame grew.
Time and again Wallace stood up to Federal orders, each time backing down at the last minute. Each time his fame grew. At the same time, he quietly made life better for the poor, with a number of liberal programs his national supporters would have hated, provided free books to schools, and opened a series of junior colleges.
In the 1964 Democratic primary, George Wallace tried to be the anti-communist candidate, but the crowds after his speeches often caused violence. Lyndon Johnson easily won the nomination. Wallace was reelected governor.
The famous March from Selma and the savage beatings of Americans by racist police occurred in March 1965. All over the world, nations saw what happened to people of color in America. The Soviet Union was able to make great use of Wallace and his supporters, whom often inadvertently destroyed US efforts during the various wars of liberation around the world.
In 1966, Wallace could not run again by law, so he ran Lurleen Wallace on a campaign that she continue all of her husband’s policies. She won easily, and George became First Gentleman of Alabama. However, she died from cancer on May 7, 1968 while still in office.
Wallace had set his sights again on the presidency. He farmed his children out to various relatives and ran as a third party candidate. He did not initially hope to win, but to force the election into the House of Representatives where he could make a deal with Nixon or Humphrey. However, his campaign message was what would now be called libertarian, with a healthy dose of racism and win the war in Vietnam or get out. As always, he said privately that states rights was code of anti-black. Polls showed that Wallace had 25% of the country behind him. However, he had no running mate. Everyone he asked turned him down because they did not want to be labeled a racist. He finally settled on General Curtis LeMay, nicknamed “Bombs Away LeMay.” LeMay also initially turned him down to avoid the racism charge. Lemay was a leading advocate of using nuclear weapons, but from his first interview with reporters he gave crazy answers and it seemed to the public that a Wallace/Lemay administration would lead the United States into a nuclear war. Support for the ticket plummeted. However, Wallace was still the most successful third party candidate in history, winning Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
He again ran for Governor of Alabama in 1970, vowing to not run for president in 1972. He ran one of the most racist campaigns in US history, making his opponent out to be controlled by the communist black bloc, using fear of white rape and loss of power to win. The day after the election, he broke his promise and filed for the 1972 presidential election. Right before being sworn into office, he married Cornelia Snively, who was often compared to Jackie Kennedy in her style and social grace.
Wallace’s administrations were well know for corruption, and this one was no different. Contractors who won state contracts were expected to kick back 10% on the contract as campaign donations. Several Federal investigations failed to imprison any of the main players.
Wallace entered the 1972 Democratic primary as a favorite, and for the next four months he looked like he would win, and defeat Nixon in the general election. On May 15, 1972 Wallace was shot 5 times in Laurel Maryland by Arthur Bremer, a man had been stalking him for months. Bremer only did it to become famous. Wallace almost died, and lived in terrible agony the rest of his life in a wheelchair. His presidential bid was over. All over Alabama, black churches prayed that night that George Wallace would not die, but recover. For the man who had treated them with such contempt and hatred, they showed the depth of their Christian values.
He won reelection as governor in 1974. Wallace’s home life fell apart. He was never close to his children and he began to accuse his wife of multiple affairs (which she was having). They divorced in 1978.
He tried to run for president in 1976, playing on the fact the Franklin Roosevelt was also wheelchair bound. He lost to Jimmy Carter, the first southern governor to become president since the Civil War.
In the late 1970s, George Wallace became a born again Christian. He personally called many of the people, black or white, who’s lives he had ruined and begged them for forgiveness. He mostly received it. Of his former opinions he said, “I was wrong. Those days are over, and they ought to be over.”
In 1982 Wallace won election for governor with the endorsement and overwhelming support of the black population of Alabama. He returned to his original liberal ways, appointing large numbers of blacks to public office.
In his later years, he spent much of his time sitting in a little café in Montgomery, AL, visited by former friends and enemies. He died on September 13, 1998.
There has been much debate on which of the George Wallaces, liberal or racist, was the true George Wallace. More than likely they both were. He used support of the Confederacy and states rights as a cover for segregation and oppression of a disliked segment of the US population, and to extend the idea of white supremacy. Today many modern politicians quote almost verbatim from Wallace speeches, only changing the target group on which to direct the audience’s anger.
One must ask, if you use the words of George Wallace, and the symbols of George Wallace, how can you truly say that you are not really supporting the ideals of George Wallace?
The original George Wallace saw the error of his ways, and spent the rest of his life asking forgiveness from those he had harmed. Perhaps eventually his modern day imitators will do the same.