"Segregation now...segregation today...segregation forever!" was the refrain, and the "stand in the schoolhouse doorway" the symbol of Southern defiance during the Civil Rights era. These last-gasp efforts to cling to white supremacy were orchestrated by former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, who learned fast what it took to win in the South.
As a moderate Alabama state legislator, Wallace was defeated in the 1958 gubernatorial race by a man actively supported by the Ku Klux Klan. "...no other son-of-a-bitch will ever out-nigger me again," said Wallace. After winning the 1962 governor's race, Wallace was off and running, serving as Alabama governor five times and scoring primary wins in four presidential campaigns between 1964-76.
What accounted for Wallace's national appeal? According to Kenan History Professor Dan T. Carter, it was far more than simple racism. "Wallace was able to compound racial fear, anticommunism, cultural nostalgia and traditional right-wing economics into a movement" that exploited the apprehension with which the white working and middle class viewed the rise in street crime, social unrest and the erosion of cultural values. This tapestry of issues "laid the foundation for the conservative counterrevolution that reshaped American politics in the 1970s and 1980s," argues Carter in his Wallace biography, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, The Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics.
Although Wallace did not wield a billyclub or pull a trigger, he stood by as attack dogs were set loose on black children...four black girls were blown to bits in the Birmingham Baptist Church bombing...black churches and homes, and synagogues were bombed relentlessly. No one was to blame, said Wallace, except for the U.S. Supreme Court, the Kennedys, the communists, "reckless outside agitators and basically ungodly government," -- and the victims themselves.
By the time Wallace entered the 1968 presidential primary and almost threw the election into the U.S. House of Representatives, smart politicians like Richard Nixon had figured out Wallace's formula for attracting mainstream America on social issues such as school desegregation and "law and order."
No one could misinterpret Wallace's stand on crime. He told a New York City rally that there were no riots in Alabama. "They start a riot down there, first one of `em to pick up a brick gets a bullet in the brain, that's all. And then you walk over to the next one and say, `All right, pick up a brick.'"
Wallace understood the frustrations of middle-class America. "`You people work hard, you save your money, you teach your children to respect the law... then when someone goes out and burns down half a city and murders someone, pseudo-intellectuals explain it away by saying the killer didn't get any watermelon to eat when he was 10 years old.'"
A would-be assassin cut short Wallace's 1972 presidential bid, effectively removing him from the national scene. Many books have been written about the country's political and social upheaval in the 1960s, but few devote more than a paragraph to the Alabama governor, or even mention him.
But Carter points out that "It was Wallace who sensed and gave voice to a growing national white backlash in the mid-1960s...(he) recognized the political capital to be made in a society shaken by social upheaval and economic uncertainty. As the conservative revolution reached high tide, it was no accident that the groups singled out for relentless abuse and condemnation were welfare mothers and aliens, groups that are both powerless, and by virtue of color and nationality, outsiders."
Wallace is now a deaf old man, slumped in a wheelchair and racked with constant pain, who constantly calls black civil rights activists to weep for forgiveness. The only controversy to surround Wallace now is if he is truly sorry for his racist past and the pain he inflicted on so many.
"Men's hearts are concealed," said the English biographer Boswell. "But their actions are open to scrutiny," quotes Carter in his book. The historian Carter reminds us that if we refuse to distinguish among the choices made by Wallace and those made by men and women with a moral compass, then "we dishonor those men and women who compromised and comprised again, and retreated from what they believed was right--until they reached a point at which they recoiled, `No more. This I will not do.'"
-- Nancy Seideman