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Racism to Redemption

The Path of George Wallace

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, March/April 2000 | Volume 21, Number 2

As a fourteen-year-old statehouse page in Alabama, George C. Wallace stood on the spot where Jefferson Davis had taken the oath of office as president of the Confederacy and swore to himself: "I am going to be governor someday."

The young man did become governor of Alabama four times and a contender for the U.S. presidency. To reach his goals, he challenged the federal government in its attempts to advance civil rights and took actions that were in direct contradiction to the liberal values he espoused as a young judge and politician.

George Wallace is most often seen as the standard bearer of white opposition to integration in the 1960s. "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever," the words he spoke at his 1963 inaugural as governor of Alabama, became a rallying cry for those opposed to integration and an anathema to the growing Civil Rights Movement. Yet, he is also the man who, as a judge in the 1950s, often ruled in favor of black plaintiffs and demanded that lawyers treat them with respect.

Filmmakers Paul Stekler and Daniel McCabe explore the contradictions of Wallace's life and his legacy to American politics in their new NEH-funded film, George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire. Narrated by actor Randy Quaid, The American Experience film airs on public television in two parts on April 23 and 24.

In examining Wallace's life, Stekler and McCabe found it to be a Shakespearean tragedy. "He starts out with an incredible talent for politics, wanting to do good things for others and himself," says Stekler. But ambition makes him decide "to do what he needs to do to get what he wants and goes on. Then he is struck down and at the end of his life looks back and asks for forgiveness."

The film details Wallace's racist rhetoric and Ku Klux Klan connections and the consequences of his positions, but also highlights how early in his life he spoke for the downtrodden--black and white alike. It explores his role in four presidential elections, including the one in 1972 when he was shot at a campaign rally and crippled. Later in life Wallace sought redemption, personally calling civil rights activists, asking for their forgiveness and admitting he was wrong about segregation.

Politics was part of George Wallace's life from his childhood in Clio, Alabama. It seemed to run in the water in Barbour County, where he was born August 25, 1919. The tiny county had produced five governors, and "there wasn't much of a way out of that place, if you had ambition, except in politics," says Emory University historian Dan Carter, who served as an advisor to the film.

At ages five and six, the young Wallace was hanging around downtown by the courthouse shaking people's hands and welcoming new folks to Clio. He was excited to watch his father count votes in local elections. Accompanying his grandfather, the county doctor, on house calls gave Wallace a glimpse into the lives of the desperately poor, leaving an impression on him that would influence his politics.

By the time Wallace was thirteen years old, he was obsessed with the political process, says Carter. "He lived politics, he ate politics, he absorbed it."

Wallace graduated from the University of Alabama with a law degree in 1942 and soon after married Lurleen Burns. During the war, he entered the Army Air Corps but turned down Officer Candidate School because, he reasoned, after the war there would be more enlisted men voting than officers.

In 1946, Wallace, then twenty-seven, won his first election as state representative for Barbour County. He began his political career as a moderate Democrat, following the politics of Jim Folsom, governor and leader of the progressive, liberal wing of Alabama politics. The film notes that in his first year Wallace introduced fifty bills, many of them programs for the poor paid for with new taxes on the rich. Wallace also asked Folsom to appoint him to the Tuskegee Board of Trustees, the State's most prestigious black university.

In 1952 Wallace was elected a circuit court judge in Clayton. Civil rights attorney J. L. Chestnut remembers those days, recalling that Wallace was the first judge to refer to him, a black man, as "Mr. Chestnut."

"Wallace was for the underdog," says Chestnut in the film. The lawyer recalls a case in which he was representing a group of poor black farmers against a major cotton oil processor. The lawyers for the cotton industry "wouldn't even refer to us as plaintiffs. They just said, 'those people,'" remembers Chestnut. "And you could see Wallace getting tense over that and giving them the eye. And finally he says to them, 'When you address Mr. Chestnut, you will address him as Mr. Chestnut. You will refer to his clients as the plaintiffs.' And Wallace ruled against them and ruled for me in every case. If I was asking for one hundred dollars, I got one hundred and fifty dollars. He was sitting without a jury. So Wallace was quite different from the rest of the judges in Alabama."

But something changed dramatically in Wallace's public persona after his first election defeat. When Wallace launched his first campaign for governor in 1958, the Civil Rights Movement was heating up throughout the South, and many white Alabama voters felt they were under siege.

During his campaign, Wallace had tried to find some middle ground. Though he supported segregation, he remained moderate enough to win NAACP support. He spoke against the Ku Klux Klan and tried to continue with the principles of Jim Folsom: championing the poor, the underdog. His opponent, John Patterson, ran an openly racist campaign that played into the fears of white Southerners. Patterson swept into office, and Wallace was devastated.

"Wallace, with his keen political antenna, understood immediately why he had lost," says Chestnut. "And I think that he decided at that point that he would exploit race to the extent that he considered necessary to win." In making that decision, Wallace "made a Faustian bargain," says Richard Jenkins of the Alabama Journal. "The one-time progressive decided to sell his soul for the governorship."

One of the particularly insightful comments in the film comes from Seymore Trammell, Wallace's former finance director. Trammell recalls a talk with Wallace after the defeat: "He said, 'Seymore, do you know why I lost that governor's race?' I said, 'I'm not sure, Judge. What do you think?' He said, 'Seymore, I was out-niggered by John Patterson. And I'll tell you here and now, I will never be out-niggered again.'"

From then on, Wallace's platform became the politics of race--against integration and against black voter registration. He lambasted the federal government for what he saw as its growing intrusion in what he considered state affairs to rally support. With his eyes toward the next gubernatorial election, Wallace refused to give up voter records in his district to a federal commission investigating discrimination against black voters. He was the only circuit judge who refused to comply.

Eventually, Wallace gave up the records to avoid going to jail, but he portrayed himself as the only one in the South to stand up to a federal judge. And the predominantly white Alabama voters loved it. He became known as the "Fighting Little Judge." In 1962 Wallace was elected to his first term as governor in a landslide.

Some supporters were appalled at Wallace's changed political stance. But Dan Carter, his biographer, says in the film that Wallace had this response: "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."

"Wallace's turning point was a cynical decision to switch from being a moderate to appeal to what was essentially a lost cause--fighting integration," says McCabe. "He rode that opposition to power." Richmond Flowers, former Alabama state attorney general, says in the film that he thought Wallace did it all to get elected and once in office he would do the right thing."

But the strength of the power and appeal of his message to white voters got hold of him. "He was a deeply ambitious person, and between doing the right thing and ambition, ambition won," says McCabe.

Within a year of becoming governor, Wallace made national headlines by standing against the federal government on the issue of integration. He stood at the doors of a building at the University of Alabama, threatening to block the entrance of two black students to the school. Facing him was then Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, sent by President John F. Kennedy to enforce a federal court's decision to integrate the university.

In his statement to Katzenbach and the press, Wallace said: "The unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted, and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama today of the might of the central government, offers frightful example of the oppression of the rights, privileges, and sovereignty of this state by offices of the federal government."

Although Americans across the country knew Wallace was taking a stand against integration, Wallace himself never used the word in his statement. Carter, author of The Politics of Rage: George Wallace and His America, explains in the film: "Wallace has the assistant attorney general come. . .to implore, threaten, promise, entreat him. And then he's able, on national television. . .to give this somewhat stodgy but still very dignified defense of Southern tradition.

"People had been reading in the newspapers about what an awful man this George Wallace was, and then they saw him, millions of Americans saw him. And they saw somebody who was reasonably dignified, who gave at least a reasoned argument in favor of states' rights. He didn't mention race at all."

But Wallace's rhetoric fueled racist fire, with violent and deadly consequences. Three months after his University of Alabama stance, four children were killed by a bomb planted by Klansmen at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King stated, "The murders of yesterday stand as blood on the hands of Governor Wallace."

"When four little girls are killed, of course, he didn't want that to happen," says Carter in the film, "but you can't get away from the consequences of your action. It's not what he intended that, in the last analysis, is important. It's that reckless disregard he showed that led to these events."

In 1965, six hundred predominantly black civil rights activists set out from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery, fifty miles away, to make voter registration a national issue. Wallace issued an order to stop the march. When the marchers arrived at the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the edge of Montgomery, they found state troopers waiting with sticks, bullwhips, and tear gas. The beatings that followed were seen on television by a horrified national audience. Within days, President Johnson asked Congress to pass the most comprehensive voting rights bill in the nation's history.

"By making the issue of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and particularly the Voting Rights Act of 1965, his politics and his opposition to it, in effect, helped those bills pass," says Jenkins. "They could be called the Wallace Acts of 1964 and '65."

Wallace's political ambitions grew. Even as the violent events were taking place in his home state, he saw an opening on the national scene with his anti big-government, pro law-and-order message. He presented himself as the outsider and tapped into working- class feelings of being left out by a government concerned only with the rights of minorities. The boy who swore he would be governor set his sights on the White House. While in his first gubernatorial term, Wallace entered the 1964 Democratic primaries in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland, and with little campaigning took over one third of the overall vote.

To hold onto his power in Alabama and remain a possible player in the national election in 1968, Wallace took an unusual step. In 1966, he could not run for governor of Alabama because the constitution at the time prohibited a governor from serving two consecutive terms. He convinced his wife, Lurleen, just recovering from cancer surgery, to run. Among the most moving moments in the film come when two of Wallace's children, George Wallace, Jr., and Peggy Wallace Kennedy, talk about their mother, her campaign and term as governor, and her death from cancer while in office. Lurleeen Wallace remains one of the most sainted politicians in Alabama, says McCabe.

Even as his wife's health was declining, Wallace began his 1968 presidential bid, this time challenging the Republicans and Democrats with his new American Independent Party.

The country was in turmoil on the heels of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., riots in major cities, antiwar marches and sit-ins. The explosive atmosphere put Wallace in a prime position with his law-and-order message, his opposition to the civil rights acts passed by Congress, and the Supreme Court's decisions on school prayer, integration, and later, on abortion. By October of 1968, 22 percent of American voters supported George Wallace for president. In the general election he won five states with ten million people casting their votes for him and nearly throwing the election to the House of Representatives.

But Wallace never did become president, despite additional attempts in 1972 and 1976. In the 1972 campaign, which occurred during his second gubernatorial term, he ran as a Democrat. Just as Wallace was gaining momentum (he had won the Florida primary and posted strong seconds in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania), he was shot by the mentally unstable Arthur Bremer during a campaign stop in Laurel, Maryland.

Wallace ran again in 1976, this time from his wheelchair. With his health a major factor among voters, he did not fare well. Another Southerner was to run that year and win, Jimmy Carter of Georgia.

Following the 1976 defeat, Wallace returned to Alabama to complete his third term. At the same time, his second marriage, to Cornelia Wallace, came to an end.

What followed was a period of reflection. "And so, one by one, he picks up the telephone and he begins calling his old enemies, the people who he had used as kind of punching bags in the 1960s and asked for their forgiveness," says Dan Carter. One of the people Wallace called was civil rights leader John Lewis, who had been beaten by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. "He literally poured out his soul and heart to me. It was almost a confession," says Lewis in the film.

Whether it was his conscience or political expediency that sparked him to ask for forgiveness will never be known. But when he reentered politics for the 1982 governor's race, he sought and won the vote of black constituents, and he worked with black leaders once elected. Citing his health, Wallace chose not to run for another term and announced his retirement in 1986. He died on September 13, 1998, at seventy-nine.

What mark did George Wallace leave on history? A longer-lasting one than many may give him credit for, say the filmmakers. "Today, many historians argue that the resistance championed by George Wallace ultimately had a profound impact on the nation's politics and policies in the following decades," says Stekler. "Wallace was often explicitly racist in his rhetoric, especially in the early 1960s, yet his broader message of running against the bureaucrats in Washington, against 'big government,' can be clearly linked to the appeals of every president since the 1960s."

Stekler considers Wallace an amazing character. "He begins gifted at politics, an idealist in some ways. He works all his life to become governor and just when it is within his grasp, he's prevented from winning. He then makes a conscious decision to give up his ideals and embraces racism, which gives him political success and power, more than he ever believed possible. Then at the height of his success, he is struck down. At the end of his life he goes back to his roots."

About the Author

Maggie Riechers is a freelance writer in Potomac, Maryland.

Funding Information

George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire received $822,992 in NEH funding. It airs April 23 and 24 on public television. The film was awarded the Special Jury Prize for Documentary Writing at the Sundance Film Festival in January.