Remembering George Wallace


The first conversation with George C. Wallace that I remember was at a reception in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1962, shortly after he had been nominated for his first term as governor. Northern industrialists were bringing a new plant to town, and Wallace welcomed them.
City fathers and University of Alabama people as well as local politicians and business leaders already had been talking about how to head off a potentially violent confrontation with the federal government over the coming integration of the student body. In his recent campaign, Wallace had pledged to "stand in the schoolhouse door" to prevent that.

I was at the reception as the aide to a local politician. When it was my turn to be charmed, Wallace and I were almost alone in a corner alcove, and I took the opportunity to tell him--as if he didn't know--that many of us local people didn't want him to stand in the schoolhouse door. For one thing, I suggested, it could encourage the Ku Klux Klan that had its Grand Dragon's headquarters in Tuscaloosa.

That set him off. He said something like, "You may look down on them, but these rabble-rousers help control the nigras and make it safer for you and me, for the country club crowd." I was stunned. At the luncheon, he dominated the talk at his table with executives from New York and also shocked them into silence. One of them, Thomas S. Healey, wrote about it later: "Sitting on the edge of his chair and jabbing the air with his forefinger, he let us in on the future as he saw it. If those politicians in Washington send marshals to integrate Alabama's schools, he boomed, we'll meet 'em at the border with the state police. We know how to handle our 'nigras' here. We know what works and what doesn't. Those agitators up North don't know anything about the folks here."
Wallace had lost the 1958 race for governor in part, he thought, because he had rejected support from the Klan. It would be a long time before he made that mistake again.

When Wallace died on Sept. 13, thousands of African Americans in the state and elsewhere had forgiven him his trespasses. Black voters' support was responsible for placing him in the governor's office for a fourth time in 1982 after he said he was wrong about segregation. I am surprised even now that it happened. But both white and black Southerners love repentant sinners. Some said that given the choice on that ballot -- between a crippled old toothless tiger and the healthy, young Republican mayor of Montgomery -- they preferred the devil they knew.

You had to feel sorry for Wallace when he was shot and paralyzed in 1972 in a Laurel, Md., shopping center while campaigning for president. The fiery little politician who strutted across a thousand platforms shriveled before our eyes. His marriage to the beauteous Cornelia soon dissolved; his subsequent marriage failed also; his hearing diminished to the point that he was stone deaf, And the excruciating pain from the gunshot wound that bruised his spinal cord beyond repair never went away.

The pain he caused with his racist brand of politics won't go away either.

Forgive? If Joe Lowery can forgive him, and Jesse Jackson can hold his hands and pray with him, and James Hood--one of the students Wallace tried to bar from the U of A when he kept his promise to stand in the schoolhouse door--could join the mourners at his funeral in mid-September, I suppose I can forgive him, too. But I won't forget the pain he caused or inspired and the obstacles he placed in the path of citizens--black and white--who hungered for progress in one of the nation's most-beautiful but poorest states.

The Bible teaches that those who are given much should give much. Wallace demonstrated some genuine concern for the plight of the common man and woman and he could have led his state and nation in a positive direction, as did some of his fellow Southern governors, like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, but instead he pandered to the worst that is in us. James Hood said Wallace told him, "Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad with power."

Make no mistake about it. In the 10 years that he strutted across the national stage, before he took to his wheelchair for the rest of his life, Wallace had power. David Broder, the veteran political reporter-columnist for the Washington Post, recalls a campaign stop in Flint, Mich. "I watched him fill the biggest hall in town, whip that crowd into a frenzy, send them on their way (shorn of the money they dumped into the buckets his helpers passed) and then refill the same auditorium with a crowd of equal size, which had waited patiently for admission. He was even better at the second seating."
Broder said the hair stood up on the back of his neck when he realized that if Wallace had said, "Go get them!" those crowds would have banged the heads or torched the hopes of anyone Wallace targeted.

Wallace's hate-filled message and his tactics caught on across the nation. To the surprise of political experts, Wallace's successes in Northern and Eastern states' presidential primaries ended the idea that bigotry and racism were confined to "backward" people in the Southern states. Almost any conversation with him in the last decades of his life featured a recitation of his vote count in Minnesota, Michigan, Maryland and other so-called liberal states.

Looking back on the Wallace era, it's still hard to believe he could have vaulted from the Alabama governor's office to the center of the national political stage. But he did, and he changed both the Democratic and Republican parties, maybe forever.

Wallace was the father of the "Southern Strategy" employed successfully first by Richard Nixon. Nixon adopted Wallace's themes and Southerners voted for him, figuring he was less likely than his opponents to end their "way of life," meaning separation of the races, no matter what the U.S. Supreme Court said.

The South that once was solidly Democratic--in name, at least; it really was a one-party South--is almost solidly Republican. Recent candidates for local and national offices in Alabama say the "race issue" remains the only issue.

To be sure, the November election placed Don Siegelman in George Wallace's old office, but it wasn't because the Alabama campaign manger for George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election advertised his liberal past. No, it was because he advocated a statewide lottery to pay for improvements in public education, not an increase in the already low income tax and property tax. And John Edwards, the young Democrat who sent North Carolina's arch-conservative Sen. Lauch Faircloth packing, emphasized that he, too, is a conservative--but handsomer and not as mean. It's likely to be a long time before the Democrats rise again in the South.

Wallace chewed up his opponents. The state senators who stood in the way of a constitutional amendment that would have given him a try for a second consecutive term never held public office again. Of the 17 senators, 10 did not even bother to run when their terms expired, three ran for other statewide offices and lost, one died of natural causes, and the others were defeated when they ran for re-election.

Carl Elliott, a Japser, Ala., lawyer was defeated for re-election to the U.S. Congress, after 18 years of stellar service on behalf of the country's poor and uneducated, because he balked at supporting Wallace. Elliott told me Wallace asked him to join in denouncing the "scalawaggin', carpet-baggin' lyin' federal judges." Elliott, who later received the Profiles in Courage Award, told Wallace: "Well, George, I can't do that. I always figured the federal courts protected poor, ignorant sons-a-bitches like you and me."

Campaigning openly against Elliott was a contingent from the White Citizens Council, allies of Wallace's who were believed by many to be the uptown branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Elliott had mortgaged his house for campaign money and when he couldn't repay the loan he had to rent his home place from the mortgage lender.

Wallace set out to establish himself as the master segregationist of his day--and succeeded. In his defense, at the time and in his later years, he insisted that his animosity was not directed toward the black people but at the federal government. In his final years, he knew and acknowledged, "That was a mistake."

His friends said that before his death he fretted that his name would forever be linked with violence and racial intolerance and not with the good things he believed he did for Alabamians. They said if he could have one thing, he would like to be rehabilitated in the public's mind. "Hell, it's going to be on his tombstone, I think. 'The Schoolhouse Door.' I'm sorry he has to lay up in the bed and think about that," said his friend and Cabinet official Taylor Hardin, quoted in The Birmingham News report on Wallace's funeral.

Somehow, however, Wallace evolved from the politics of confrontation to the politics of accommodation. Healey, who wrote The two Deaths of George Wallace (Black Belt Press, Montgomery, Ala., 1996) hit the nail on the head when he said Wallace "never proved himself to be a friend to blacks, but by the end of his public life, he had at least gotten out of their way."

On the 30th anniversary of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery (March 7, 1965) Wallace asked for permission to make a statement. This time, the marchers traced the route peacefully--a marked contrast to the violent confrontation that awaited the marchers 30 years earlier when Wallace's storm troops clubbed them into retreat or submission. "May your message be heard. May your lessons never be forgotten. May our history be always remembered," he said.

Joseph Lowery, the Birmingham Methodist minister who helped organize the first march and then headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta until recently, thanked Wallace "for coming out of your sickness to meet us. You are a different George Wallace today. We both serve a God who can make the desert bloom. We ask God's blessing on you."

Peggy Roberson, a former reporter for the Birmingham News and Washington correspondent for the Montgomery Advertiser-Journal, is retired from Hearst Newspapers Washington bureau. She is a freelance reporter and editor.

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