GEORGE CORLEY WALLACE
George Corley Wallace, Jr. (August 25, 1919 – September 13, 1998) was the 45th Governor of Alabama, serving four terms: 1963–1967, 1971–1979 and 1983–1987. "The most influential loser" in 20th-century U.S. politics, according to biographers Dan T. Carter and Stephan Lesher, he ran for U.S. president four times, running officially as a Democrat three times and in the American Independent Party once.
A 1972 assassination attempt left him paralyzed; he used a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He is best known for his Southern populist, pro-segregation attitudes during the American desegregation period, convictions he renounced later in life.
The first of four children, Wallace was a native of Barbour County, Alabama. He was born in the town of Clio, in rural southeast Alabama, to George Corley Wallace and Mozell Smith Wallace. He was the third of four generations to have the name George Wallace, but as neither parent liked the name "Junior", he was called George C. to distinguish him from his father, George, and his grandfather, Dr. Wallace. Wallace's father had dropped out of college to pursue a life of farming when prices were high during World War I; Mozell had to sell their farmland to pay existing mortgages when George Sr. died in 1937. George, like his parents, became a life-long Methodist.
Wallace was fascinated with politics from the age of 10, winning a contest to serve as a page for the Alabama Senate in 1935 and confidently predicting that he would one day be governor. Wallace became a regionally successful boxer in high school, then went directly to law school at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 1937. He was a member of the Delta Chi Fraternity. After receiving a law degree in 1942, he entered pilot cadet training in the Air Force. He washed out, became a staff sergeant and flew B-29 combat missions over Japan in 1945. He served under General Curtis LeMay, who would be his running mate in the 1968 presidential race. While in the service, Wallace nearly died of spinal meningitis, but prompt medical attention with sulfa drugs saved him. He was left with partial hearing loss and nerve damage; he was medically discharged with a disability pension.
Entry into politics
In 1938, at age nineteen, Wallace contributed to his grandfather's successful campaign for probate judge. Late in 1945, he was appointed assistant attorney general of Alabama, and in May 1946, he won his first election as a member to the Alabama House of Representatives. At the time, he was considered a moderate on racial issues. As a delegate to the 1948 Democratic National Convention, he did not join the Dixiecrat walkout at the convention, despite his opposition to President Harry S. Truman's proposed civil rights program, which he considered an infringement on states' rights. In his 1963 inauguration as governor, Wallace excused this action on political grounds.
In 1953, he was elected Circuit Judge in the Third Judicial Circuit of Alabama. Here he became known as "the fightin' lil' judge," a reference to his boxing days. He gained a reputation for fairness regardless of the race of the plaintiff, and J. L. Chestnut, a black lawyer, recalled, "Judge George Wallace was the most liberal judge that I had ever practiced law in front of. He was the first judge in Alabama to call me 'Mister' in a courtroom."[note 1] On the other hand, "Wallace was the first Southern judge to issue an injunction against removal of segregation signs in railroad terminals." Wallace blocked federal efforts to review Barbour County voting lists, for which he was cited for criminal contempt of court in 1959. Wallace also granted probation to some blacks, which may have cost him the 1958 gubernatorial election.
Failed run for governor
He was defeated by John Patterson in Alabama's Democratic gubernatorial primary election in 1958, which at the time was the decisive election, the general election still almost always being a mere formality. This was a political crossroads for Wallace. Patterson ran with the support of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization Wallace had spoken against, while Wallace was endorsed by the NAACP. After the election, aide Seymore Trammell recalled Wallace saying, "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."[note 2]
In the wake of his defeat, Wallace "made a Faustian bargain," said Emory University professor Dan Carter. "In order to survive and get ahead politically in the '60s, he sold his soul to the devil on race." He adopted hard-line segregationism, and used this stand to court the white vote in the next gubernatorial election. When a supporter asked why he started using racist messages, Wallace replied, "You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor."
Governor of Alabama
Wallace was elected governor in a landslide victory in November 1962. He took the oath of office on January 14, 1963, standing on the gold star marking the spot where, 102 years earlier, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as President of the Confederate States of America. In his inaugural speech, he used the line for which he is best known:
To stop desegregation by the enrollment of black students Vivian Malone and James Hood, he stood in front of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963. This became known as the "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door". After being confronted by federal marshals, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, and the Alabama National Guard, he stood aside.
Wallace again attempted to stop four black students from enrolling in four separate elementary schools in Huntsville in September 1963. After intervention by a federal court in Birmingham, the four children were allowed to enter on September 9, becoming the first to integrate a primary or secondary school in Alabama.
Wallace disapproved vehemently of the desegregation of the state of Alabama and wanted desperately for his state to remain segregated. In his own words: "The President (John F. Kennedy) wants us to surrender this state to Martin Luther King and his group of pro-Communists who have instituted these demonstrations."
Economics and education
The principal achievement of Wallace's first term was an innovation in Alabama industrial development that several other states later copied: he was the first Southern governor to travel to corporate headquarters in Northern and Northeastern states to offer tax abatements and other incentives to companies willing to locate plants in Alabama.
The University of South Alabama, a new state university in Mobile, was chartered in 1963 during Wallace's first year in office as governor.
Democratic presidential primaries of 1964
In November 15–20 of 1963, in the City of Dallas, Texas, George C. Wallace announced that he had intended to challenge the then 35th U.S. President, John F. Kennedy, for the Democratic Party's nomination as candidate for U.S. President for the November 1964 general election.
Building upon his newfound public image following the University of Alabama controversy, Wallace entered the Democratic primaries on the advice of a public relations expert from Wisconsin. He ran on an "outsider" image, campaigning on his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, support of states' rights, and a "law and order" platform. In Democratic primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and Indiana, he won a third of the vote in each state.
Wallace was known for stirring up crowds with his oratory. The Huntsville Times interviewed Bill Jones, Wallace's first press secretary, who recounted "a particularly fiery speech in Cincinnati in 1964 that scared even Wallace." "Wallace angrily shouted to a crowd of 1000 that 'little pinkos' were 'running around outside' protesting his visit, and continued, after thunderous applause, Wallace said, "When you and I start marching and demonstrating and carrying signs, we will close every highway in the country." The audience leapt to their feet "and headed for the exit." Jones said, "It shook Wallace. He quickly moved to calm them down."
First Gentleman of Alabama
Term limits in the Alabama Constitution prevented Wallace from seeking a second term in 1966. Therefore, Wallace had his wife, Lurleen Wallace, run for the office as a surrogate candidate, similar to the 1924 run of Miriam Ferguson for the governorship of Texas on behalf of her husband James Ferguson, who had been impeached and was barred from running. Largely due to the work of Wallace's supporters, the Alabama restriction was later repealed.
Mrs. Wallace won the election in the fall of 1966 and was inaugurated in January 1967. However, she died in office on May 7, 1968, of cancer, during her husband's second presidential campaign. She was succeeded by Lieutenant Governor Albert Brewer, reducing Wallace's influence until his new bid for election in his own right in November 1970.
1968 third party presidential run
Wallace ran for President in the 1968 election as the American Independent Party candidate. He hoped to force the House of Representatives to decide the election by receiving enough electoral votes, presumably giving him the role of a power broker. Wallace hoped that southern states could use their clout to end federal efforts at desegregation. His platform contained generous increases for beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare.
Richard Nixon worried Wallace might steal enough votes to give the election to the Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Some Democrats feared Wallace's appeal to blue-collar workers and union members would hurt Humphrey in Northern states like Ohio, New Jersey, and Michigan. Wallace ran a "law and order" campaign similar to Nixon's.
In Wallace's 1998 obituary, Huntsville Times political editor John Anderson summarized the impact from the 1968 campaign, saying, "His startling appeal to millions of alienated white voters was not lost on Richard Nixon and other GOP strategists. First Nixon, then Ronald Reagan, and finally George H.W. Bush successfully adopted a toned-down version of Wallace's anti-busing, anti-federal government platform to pry low and middle-income whites from the Democratic New Deal coalition." Dan Carter, a professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta offered, "George Wallace laid the foundation for the dominance of the Republican Party in American society through the manipulation of racial and social issues in the 1960s and 1970s. He was the master teacher and Richard Nixon and the Republican leadership that followed were his students."
Wallace considered Happy Chandler, the former baseball commissioner and governor of Kentucky, as his running mate in his 1968 campaign for the Presidency as a third party candidate; as one of Wallace's aides put it, "We have all the nuts in the country, we could get some decent people– you working one side of the street and he working the other side." Wallace invited Chandler, but when the press published the prospect, Wallace's supporters objected: Chandler had supported the hiring of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Wallace retracted the invitation, and chose Air Force General Curtis LeMay instead. LeMay was chairman of the board of an electronics company, and the company would dismiss him if he spent his time running for vice president; Hunt set up a million-dollar fund to reimburse him for any losses. LeMay was an enthusiast for the use of nuclear weapons. Wallace's aides tried to persuade him to avoid questions relating to the topic, but when asked about it at his first interview, he attempted to dispel American "phobias about nuclear weapons" and discussed radioactive landcrabs at Bikini atoll. The issue became a drag on Wallace's candidacy for the rest of the campaign.
In 1968, when Wallace pledged that "If some anarchist lies down in front of my automobile, it will be the last automobile he will ever lie down in front of" and asserted that the only four letter words of which hippies did not know were w-o-r-k and s-o-a-p; his rhetoric became famous. He accused Humphrey and Nixon of wanting to radically desegregate the South. Wallace said, "There's not a dime's worth of difference between the Republicans and Democrats."
Major media outlets observed the support Wallace received from extremist groups such as White Citizens' Councils. It has been noted that members of such groups had permeated the Wallace campaign by 1968 and, while Wallace did not openly seek their support, nor did he refuse it. Indeed, at least one case has been documented of the pro-Nazi and white supremacist Liberty Lobby distributing a pro-Wallace pamphlet entitled "Stand up for America" despite the campaign's denial of such a connection.
While Wallace carried five Southern states and won almost ten million popular votes, Nixon received 301 electoral votes, more than needed to win the election. Wallace remains the last non-Democratic, non-Republican candidate to win any electoral votes. He was the first person to accomplish this since Harry F. Byrd, an independent segregationist candidate in the 1960 presidential election. (John Hospers in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1976, Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 and John Edwards in 2004 all received one electoral vote from faithless electors, but none "won" these votes.) Wallace also received the vote of one North Carolina elector who was pledged to Nixon.
Many found Wallace an entertaining campaigner. To "hippies" who called him a fascist, he replied, "I was killing fascists when you punks were in diapers." Another quote: "They're building a bridge over the Potomac for all the white liberals fleeing to Virginia."
Wallace decried the Supreme Court opinion in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, which ordered immediate desegregation of Southern schools - he said the new Burger court was "no better than the Warren court" and called the justices "limousine hypocrites."
Second term as governor
In 1970, Wallace faced incumbent Governor Albert Brewer, who was the first gubernatorial candidate since Reconstruction to openly court black voters. Brewer unveiled a progressive platform and worked to build an alliance between blacks and the white working class. He said of Wallace's out of state trips, "Alabama needs a full-time governor."
To weaken the prospects of a Wallace presidential campaign in 1972, President Nixon backed Brewer and arranged an Internal Revenue Service investigation in the Wallace campaign. In the primary, Brewer got the most votes but failed to win an outright majority, triggering a run-off election.
In what Former President Jimmy Carter calls "one of the most racist campaigns in modern southern political history," the Wallace campaign aired TV ads with slogans such as "Do you want the black block electing your governor?" and circulated an ad showing a white girl surrounded by seven black boys, with the slogan "Wake Up Alabama! Blacks vow to take over Alabama." Wallace called Brewer "Sissy Britches" and promised not to run for president a third time.
Wallace defeated Brewer in the runoff. The day after the election, he flew to Wisconsin to campaign for the White House. Wallace, whose presidential ambitions would have been destroyed by a defeat, has been said to have run "one of the nastiest campaigns in state history," using racist rhetoric while proposing few ideas of his own.
Democratic presidential primaries of 1972 and assassination attempt
On 13 January 1972, Wallace declared himself a candidate, entering the field with George McGovern, 1968 nominee Hubert Humphrey, and nine other Democratic opponents. In Florida's primary, Wallace carried every county to win 42 percent of the vote. When running, Wallace claimed he was no longer for segregation, and had always been a moderate. Though no longer in favor of segregation, Wallace was opposed to desegregation bussing during his campaign, a position Nixon would adopt early on as President.
For the next four months, Wallace's campaign went extremely well. However, Wallace was shot five times by Arthur Bremer while campaigning in Laurel, Maryland, on May 15, 1972, at a time when he was receiving high ratings in the opinion polls. Bremer was seen at a Wallace rally in Wheaton, Maryland, earlier that day and two days earlier at a rally in Dearborn, Michigan. As one of the bullets lodged in Wallace's spinal column, Wallace was left paralyzed from the waist down. Three others were wounded in the shooting and also survived. Bremer's diary, An Assassin's Diary, published after his arrest shows the assassination attempt was motivated by a desire for fame, not by politics, and that President Nixon had been an earlier target. Bremer was sentenced to sixty-three years in prison on August 4, 1972, later reduced to fifty-three years two months later. Bremer served thirty-five years and was released on parole on November 9, 2007. Wallace forgave Bremer 23 years later, in August 1995, and wrote to him, but Bremer never replied. Bremer's actions inspired the screenplay (1972) for the 1976 movie Taxi Driver which in turn inspired the assassination attempt on the life of President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr. in 1981.
Following the assassination attempt, Wallace was visited at the hospital by Democratic Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, a representative from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn who at the time was the nation's only African American female member of Congress. Despite their ideological differences and the opposition of Chisholm's constituents, Chisholm visited Wallace as she felt it was the humane thing to do.
Following the shooting, Wallace won primaries in Maryland and Michigan, but his near assassination effectively ended his campaign. From his wheelchair, Wallace spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Miami on July 11, 1972.
Since Wallace was out of Alabama for more than twenty days while he was recovering in Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland, the state constitution required Lieutenant Governor Jere Beasley to serve as acting governor from June 5 until Wallace's return to Alabama on July 7. Wallace never returned to Maryland. He continued serving as governor, and easily won the gubernatorial primary election of 1974.
In 1992, asked to comment on the 20th anniversary of his attempted assassination, Wallace said, "I've had 20 years of pain."
Democratic presidential primaries of 1976
Wallace announced his fourth bid for the presidency in November 1975. The campaign was plagued by voters' concerns with his health, as well as the media's constant use of images of his apparent "helplessness." His supporters complained such coverage was motivated by bias, citing the discretion used in coverage three decades earlier, or lack of coverage, of Franklin D. Roosevelt's paralysis before television became commercially available. Calculating all the Southern primaries and caucuses, Wallace carried only Mississippi, South Carolina and his home state of Alabama. Calculating the popular votes in all primaries and caucuses, Wallace placed third behind Jimmy Carter and California Governor Jerry Brown. After the primaries were completed, and he had lost several Southern primaries to former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, Wallace dropped out in June 1976. He eventually endorsed Carter, and later claimed that he facilitated a Southerner's nomination. However, no position that Wallace advocated was included in the 1976 Democratic platform.
Final term as governor
Change of positions
Wallace announced that he was a born-again Christian in the late 1970s, and apologized to black civil rights leaders for his earlier segregationist positions. He said that while he had once sought power and glory, he realized he needed to seek love and forgiveness.[note 3] In 1979, Wallace said of his stand in the schoolhouse door: "I was wrong. Those days are over and they ought to be over." His final term as Governor (1983–1987) saw a record number of black appointments to government positions. In the 1982 Alabama gubernatorial Democratic primary, Wallace's main opponents were Lieutenant Governor George McMillan and Alabama House Speaker Joe McCorquodale. In the primary, McCorquodale was eliminated, and the vote went to a runoff with Wallace holding a slight edge over McMillan. Wallace won the Democratic nomination by a margin of 51 to 49 percent.
In the general election, his opponent was Montgomery Republican mayor Emory Folmar. Polling experts said this was the best chance since Reconstruction for a Republican to be elected Alabama governor. However, it was Wallace who made the victory speech on Election Night.
George Wallace achieved four gubernatorial terms across three decades, totaling 16 years in office.
Marriages and children
Wallace's first wife, Lurleen Burns Wallace, died shortly after becoming the first (and, as of 2011, only) woman to be elected as governor of Alabama in 1966. (In 1961, in keeping with the custom of the time to shield patients from the emotional impact of discussion of cancer, Wallace had withheld information from her that a uterine biopsy had found possibly precancerous cells.) They had four children together: Bobbi Jo (1944) Parsons, Peggy Sue (1950) Kennedy, George III, known as George Junior (1951), and Lee (1961) Dye, who was named after Robert E. Lee. After her death the couple's younger children, aged 18, 16, and 6, were sent to live with family members and friends for care (their eldest daughter had already married and left home). Their son, commonly called George Wallace, Jr., is a Republican active in Alabama politics. He was twice elected State Treasurer as a Democrat, and twice elected to the state Public Service Commission.
On January 4, 1971, Wallace wed the former Cornelia Ellis Snively (1939–2009), a niece of former Alabama Governor Jim Folsom, known as "Big Jim". The attractive "C'nelia" had been a performer and was nicknamed "the Jackie Kennedy of the Rednecks." Her mother, the colorful and notorious Ruby Folsom, commented when told of the marriage: "Why, George ain't Titty high." The couple had a bitter divorce in 1978. A few months after the divorce, she told Parade magazine, "I don't believe George needs a family. He just needs an audience. The family as audience wasn't enough for his ego." The second Mrs. Wallace died on January 8, 2009, at the age of 69.
In 1996, when asked by a reporter which contemporary American political figure he most admired, he paused thoughtfully for a moment, smiled, and said: "Myself."
At a restaurant a few blocks from the State Capitol, Wallace became something of a fixture. In constant pain, he was surrounded by an entourage of old friends and visiting well-wishers and continued this ritual until a few weeks before his death. Wallace died of septic shock from a bacterial infection in Jackson Hospital in Montgomery on September 13, 1998. He suffered from respiratory problems in addition to complications from his gun-shot spinal injury. He is interred at Greenwood Cemetery in Montgomery.
The George Wallace Tunnel on Interstate 10 which traverses the Mobile Bay is named in his honor. Wallace was the subject of a documentary, George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire, shown by PBS on The American Experience in 2000. The TNT cable network also produced a movie George Wallace in 1997, which was a John Frankenheimer film starring Gary Sinise.