Wallace Joins the Ghost Brigade
A nightmare for many in his day,
Wallace now helps keep the dream alive
By CLAUDE DUNCAN
In 1982 a coalition of poor whites, blue-collar workers and African Americans
put George Wallace back in the governor's office. Alabama was a poor Southern
state fast becoming even poorer under President Reagan's take-no-prisoners
wealth redistribution binge. On the eve of his inauguration, Wallace's voice
trembled as he recalled the campaign. He saw grown men cry. If it wasn't
for the wife working, they might be on the streets. When a man couldn't
support his family, when he really wasn't needed anymore, when he was that
afraid, his very manhood became an elusive mirage--and he cried.
"Some of you have summoned me in your weakness,'' Wallace said from the inaugural platform in January 1983. "All of you must sustain me by your strength."
Then he directed his words to the strong.
First the federal government:
"TVA must lower rates charged small farmers, and the FHA stop foreclosures
and other punitive actions against farmers. Without the food they produce,
he said, people become "nothing more than a prattling mob of rabble
grasping at one another for survival."
The USDA must "at once release surplus food commodities over and above
the butter and cheese allocations"--food was "piling up in America
while people go hungry."
Then to the bankers :
"... avoid foreclosures and dispossession ... leave their personal
property undisturbed ... extend the time for payments."
"One of our biggest mistakes as a nation," he said, "...
is that the America that emerged following the second World War was one
for which we were not totally prepared.
"We rebuilt Europe, expanded our factories, produced more goods than
any nation in the world. But in the process, there fell from our grasp a
great truth--the truth that the measure of the strength of any great nation
is not the quantity of its resources, but the quality of life of its citizens.
"And now, we see the big bankers of this nation and the world showing
reckless disregard for good business practices, trying to make a big profit,
until they have endangered the financial stability of the free world."
He quoted Goldsmith, more or less:
"Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay;
Princes and lords may flourish or may fade;
A breath can make them, as breath has made;
But a bold peasantry -- a bold middle class -- their country's pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied."
"... And all the while debt, the root of bonded labor, sits at our
dinner table like a hungry stranger. All over the world, sovereign nations
face default in the face of international bankers, and agree to lower their
people's living standards and pay still higher interest rates to stay afloat.
But ... it is the average man who is called upon to feed this hungry stranger."
And to the pyramid-building odd couple of 1980s wealth, the newly rich and
the newly temporal:
"We recognize and applaud the desires of those of great individual
wealth to build among us monuments to high culture and entertainment.
"We recognize and applaud the great temples of worship and Christian
education that religious denominations seek to build and assert upon our
landscape to glorify almighty God.
"But for God's sake, let us also hear the sighs of the hungry and the
cold among us. Let us do unto the least of these, and God will reward us
with his blessings in His way in His time.
"No one can be rich, as long as there are those among us who are hungry.
"Any nation that forgets its poor will lose its soul."
At the beginning of his speech he expressed gratitude for "your confidence
in my good intentions." And at the end he expressed hope that over
the course of his new term in office, "none may say ... our intentions
were not good." For African Americans who helped sweep George Wallace
back into the governor's office, who remembered his "segregation forever"
inaugural address exactly 20 years earlier on those very Capitol steps,
"good intentions" was not an insignificant phrase.
"I say your government is back in the hands of the people again,''
he declared near the end of his 30-minute speech, about as forcefully as
his paralyzed and pained body would allow, "and we care."
It was his last inaugural. In barely three years he announced he would not
seek re-election. He thought he could win, he said, but the time had just
come, whatever that meant. George Wallace cried.
When he lay in state in the antebellum Capitol rotunda for the 24 hours
preceding his Sept. 16 funeral, African Americans filed by his long-spent,
withered little body in numbers disproportionate to their population. When
the hearse slowly made its way from the Capitol to the church, African Americans
stood on the curbs in numbers disproportionate to the crowds that once turned
out to watch him go by. When his coffin was carried into the Methodist church,
the pall bearers were uniformed state troopers, exactly half of whom were
African American, disproportionate both to their population and to the Department
of Public Safety.
At the end, perhaps, George Wallace knew who his friends were.
James Hood walked into the church a few minutes before the coffin arrived.
Wallace stood in the school house door to prevent James Hood from registering
at the University of Alabama.
A seat remained reserved for Jesse Jackson. He didn't make it. The Rev.
Jackson and Wallace had become friends of sorts. They had prayed together
on more than one occasion. They'd not just shaken hands, they had held hands.
Sometimes they held hands in the privacy of Wallace's modest home, sometimes
at public events commemorating great civil rights victories over that same
By the time he died, Wallace hadn't run for office in 16 years. It was a
long goodbye. He was too frail and pained and otherwise disabled to be of
much use to anyone but African Americans, as a symbol of redemption. His
poor-white constituency became caught up in pseudo-religious political fervor,
and still is.
In post-1982 elections, whites and people of color typically went their
separate ways, often deliberately opposite ways, as if Wallace had changed
nothing. Maybe he hadn't.
The awesome apex of Wallace's power came in his first term and in that of
his wife Lurleen, who presided over his de facto second term. That's when
the conservative state press most often raised the specter of another Huey
Long, meaning dictator. That's when he had whites whipped into a blind frenzy,
and black children were being murdered. That's when Wallace was so popular
he overwhelmed a plantation-minded legislature to create almost from scratch
a statewide community college and trade school system, provide free textbooks
to elementary and secondary children, expand rural health care, invest heavily
in sanitizing mental institutions, pave roads, and require state contractors
to pay union scale.
He would argue, as did Huey Long, that any program to help poor and working
class whites invariably helped blacks, too; they were in the same boat.
He never said, as Huey said, "Sometimes you have to taint yourself
with evil in order to get the power to do good."
The ghosts of a century of populist dreams filled the church. Angels with
a dirty side. Many fallen angels. George Wallace potentially was the most
powerful prism for a true rainbow coalition, at one time. Wallace was no
pot of gold. But preserving some of the organs in that old carcass are essential,
probably, to keeping the dream alive.
As the rocky dirt was shoveled into his grave, the ghost of Huey Long watched
from beneath a nearby oak. Seventy years earlier in Martinsville, La., Huey
Long stood under a much larger oak, supposedly the one under which Longfellow's
Evangeline once stood.
Long's words echo now, not as a dirge but as a breeze:
"And it is here under this oak where Evangeline waited for her lover,
Gabriel. This oak is immortal, but Evangeline is not the only one who waited
here in disappointment. Where are the schools, the roads and highways, the
institutions for the disabled you sent your money to build? Evangeline's
tears lasted through our lifetime--yours through generations. Give me a
chance to dry the eyes of those who still weep here."
Claude Duncan is a writer and former Washington public affairs operative
who covered Wallace for Alabama newspapers from 1968 until 1984. He now
lives in Panama City Beach, Florida.
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