George Wallace is a mostly forgotten figure in American politics. He should not be. During the tumultuous decade of the 1960s, Wallace waged a scorched earth campaign against civil rights, liberalism and the federal government.
It was a campaign marked by violence that often approached the level of state-sponsored terrorism.
Wallace took racism from the Deep South and demonstrated that it had great appeal in the so-called “liberal” north. That lesson was not lost on other ambitious politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike.
Wallace began his career as a southern progressive. That all changed when he lost the 1958 race for governor of Alabama to the hardline segregationist John Paterson.
In his post-mortem on the loss, Wallace forecast his path to political success, when he said, “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.”
And so it started.
In his inaugural address in early 1963, Wallace famously said, “Segregation today, Segregation tomorrow, Segregation forever. Six months later he was “standing in the schoolhouse door” to block the enrollment of two black students at the University of Alabama and denouncing the “central government’s” usurpation of states’ rights.
All of a sudden, Wallace was a national figure but, at least in the minds of liberals, one of scorn outside the South. They were in for a surprise. In early 1964, Wallace gave a speech in Wisconsin. He had now adopted a posture that would become a model for many others.
It would also allow many white people to indulge all of their prejudices, while, at the same time, still feeling good about themselves. It was the “Racist, who me?” approach, and it was a big success.
After the speech, someone told Wallace that there was a large constituency for his message in Wisconsin, and that, with a presidential primary coming up, it was easy to get on the ballot in the state.
This would be the big turning point. Wisconsin’s Democratic establishment wrote off Wallace’s candidacy as a bad joke, saying that it would be an ominous sign if he got 15 percent of the primary vote.
Just then, a 22 year-old sixth grade teacher at an all-white Milwaukee Catholic school held a mock election to help his 45 students understand how democracy worked, and, inadvertently, to get a window into their parents’ thinking. The results: Wallace 30, Goldwater 10, Johnson 5. (I was that teacher.)
The teacher’s reaction, “Hmm, this is a little strange,” and “Something is going on here.” When the Wisconsin primary results came in, Wallace, with little funding and almost no “ground game,” got 34 percent of the vote.
He got similar numbers in Indiana and Maryland. In the following weeks, President Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, riots broke out in Harlem, and racial clashes at the Democratic convention brought the party to the breaking point.
Wallace had tapped into a traditionally Democratic constituency that was now up for grabs. The “Wallace whites” would become the “Reagan Democrats” and, in the end, the “base” of an increasingly all-white Republican Party.
As southerners, and southern governors, former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton each refined Wallace’s approach and found ways to straddle the intractable issues of race, largely by denying that anything was about race, when, in fact, everything was.
The discredited notion of “states’ rights” now became “local solutions.” Everyone trashed the federal government. Taxes and “government” became evil because “everyone,” at least everyone white, knew that black people were getting all of these benefits that hard-working white people were paying for.
“Code words” and “dog whistles,” all pioneered by Wallace, became mainstream political tools. White grievances were at the heart of most Republican – and many Democratic – appeals.
By 1972, Wallace was no longer a threat to the Democrats. Many of his voters had migrated to the Republican Party, and he now posed a threat to Richard Nixon’s reelection, even if it was a minor threat. Wallace’s time had largely passed. But while campaigning in May of 1972, he was shot by a would-be assassin and spent the rest of his life in pain and wheel chair bound.
As a political force, Wallace was finished and faded from view. But this is where the story takes an unusual turn. In 1995, 30 years after the Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama, where Wallace’s forces had viciously attacked civil rights protesters, Wallace went to St. Jude’s church in Montgomery.
Here is what he said: “I have learned what suffering means. In a way that was impossible before the shooting, I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain and I can only ask your forgiveness.” He then joined the congregation in singing “We Shall Overcome.”
Wallace died three years later. At that time, the great American John Lewis said, “As one of the leaders of the civil rights movement, I remember that George Wallace well. But the George Wallace who sent troops to intimidate peaceful, orderly marchers in Selma in 1965 was not the same man who died this week.”
Lewis said, “Wallace deserves recognition for seeking redemption for his mistakes, for his willingness to change, and to set things right with those he harmed and with his God. Rarely does our country witness such a conversion by an elected official. Such a conversion…can be shaped only by courage and conviction.”
Editor’s note on the use of terms. In this series, terms are used in a very specific manner.
“Racism”/”racist” is limited to examples of what has been defined as “scientific racism,” the belief that one race is inherently superior/inferior to others, and, the current use, a power relationship in which one group dominates another, as in “white supremacy.” Racism in this context is typically a system.
“Bigotry” is used to describe group or individual beliefs that stereotype or demean another group. In this sense, bigotry is not limited to the group(s) that wield power over others.
“Racialism” is a term that describes practices intended to pit groups against one another, even in the absence of the individual being a bigot or racist. Racialism is widespread in our political life. For example, in 1964 Barry Goldwater ran ads with a picture of a white worker (“fired”) and a black worker (“hired,”) while in 1980, Jimmy Carter implied that Reagan would re-enslave black people.
As the profiles in this series demonstrate, the boundaries between these terms are fluid, and the outcomes are invariably negative.