On September 16, 1998 George Corley Wallace was laid to rest with full military honors. Several mournful black leaders attended the funeral making for an ironic ending for a man whose political life was highlighted with racial controversy and skepticism. Emory Magazine quotes Reverend Jesse Jackson summing up the majority’s feelings by saying, “Governor Wallace was a figure who represented both tragedy and triumph. The tragedy was in his early years…The triumph is that Governor Wallace lived long enough to be repentant of his sins and to be earnest in reaching out to people he had rejected and endangered. As a result, he became a better person and a better governor.” Indeed, Wallace triumphed over more than his sins. According to Dan Carter, Wallace triumphed as being the grandfather of a new national conservative movement. In Carter’s book, The Politics of Rage, he gives an insightful view into Governor Wallace’s life both on political and personal levels. Carter, through meticulous research, weaves the story of the governor’s life from the time of his birth to the end of his challenging political career. The Politics of Rage illustrates a man whose life made a major impact in the Deep South, and throughout the U.S., the picture of a man deemed “…the most influential loser in the twentieth-century American politics.”
As the son of a man whose family was well known as being “desperately poor” and ill educated, George Wallace hardly seemed to fit the candidacy for governor of Alabama, but even as a small boy Wallace made this his goal. The start of his political career began while he was in high school. making sure he had made arrangements to make up missed school work, Wallace set out for Montgomery as a page for the Alabama legislature. The job of “errand boy” was certainly a small cry from governor, but it worked well for George. It gave him the opportunity to meet the important people in Alabama politics and begin to make a name for himself. With his eager, hyperactive personality he proved to be a person few could forget, a fact that would benefit George in his later political dealings.
While George worked his way through high school and eventually into college, he still continued to work toward his political career on a personal level. His sister remembered him as always “out on the streets, talking to people… about anything. He was always on the go!” At a time of communist and racial tensions “young Wallace” seemed to understand and know just what to say. He later said that his father used to tell him, “poverty and illiteracy in the South resulted from the way we were treated when the [Civil] war was over… when they burned the schools down, burned the railroads, just desecrated the South.” Apparently this was a common feeling among southerners at the time, and “young Wallace” used it to his full advantage.
As a freshman in college, Wallace managed to win the votes of the “independents and unpledged freshman” to become class president. This was quite a feat considering that at Wallace’s college, The University of Alabama, members of fraternities were the ones that held the student offices. Wallace was not pledged to a fraternity. Apparently excited over his win, not long after, he “bluntly challenged the sway of these fraternity leaders” and announced that he would be running for the office of president of the Cotillion Club, a powerful club on campus that essentially controlled all elected student positions. Wallace lost to the Sigma Chi Fraternity, it having won nearly 60% of the votes. With unswaying ambition Wallace tried again the following year, and was beaten by an even larger margin. He was reported to have been a good loser, undaunted by defeat. This would prove itself again later in Wallace’s life.
Just eight days after Wallace was honorably discharged from the Air Force, he began a new job as the assistant to the Alabama Attorney General. With a letter he had received from Governor Chauncey Sparks promising him a job after the war, he was granted the position. With a rise in “skyrocketing inflation, widespread shortages, unemployment and a wave of strikes from the labor movement” Wallace was “anxious to assume leadership.” Just three months after he was granted the position at his new job, Wallace requested a leave of absence to pursue a position on the legislature.
Around this time a new man appeared on the scene, “Big” Jim Folsom, a man who would help to influence and shape the paths that George Wallace would take on his rise to leadership. Folsom was a much-loved man among the poor and working class of Alabama He essentially stood for three things: “the Bill of Rights, a compassionate government, and an absolute democracy.” As the “poor man’s friend,” he embraced his ideals not only for the white voters, but for the black as well. It was said that after each campaign, “he immediately went to the first black person he could see and made it a point to shake hands with him and with everyone there.” In Folsom’s campaigns, the white voters heard, “it was the duty of Christian white folks to hold out a helping hand to their colored brothers and sisters.” What they failed to see was his feelings on eliminating the poll tax, and ending the automatic refusal of black voters. He insisted that race was just a “ploy to further divide poor people and their common interests.” Perhaps they heard his ideas and dismissed them as a politician’s rhetoric. Whatever the case, Folsom was considered a favorite, and won the approval of many Alabama voters. Later, however, he would be given credit for turning Alabama’s political system “upside down.”
While Folsom “swept across the state,” George was working his own magic. He visited with people and shook hands essentially from sun up until sun down. Most everyone knew who George Wallace was when it came time for elections. McDowell Lee, who later replaced Wallace in the legislature, said, “George knew every voter, down to the chicken thieves.” Wallace won by a landslide. Immediately after he made it to the House, he began introducing bills by the armful, fifty in his first session. Some began to claim he was a “dangerous liberal.” With George’s relentless ambition, he seldom gained much trust from other politicians, but no one could overlook his talents. Wallace and Folsom, both with an abundance of charisma and similar ideas, soon joined forces. Wallace backed Folsom whole-heartedly, and, in turn, Folsom was happy to use the energetic Wallace to help fight his political battles.
In 1950 George announced his candidacy for circuit judge. His opponent, Preston C. Clayton, posed a big threat to George. Preston, a decorated World War II veteran and distinguished lawyer, was given the edge by most observers. Wallace, his energy never ceasing, again hit the streets. He told voters “All the officers could vote for Clayton, and all the enlisted men could vote for him.” After all Wallace had served his time in the military as a sergeant. His campaigning worked. He won victoriously with three-fourths of the vote. Clayton was quoted later as saying, “he [George Wallace] had all those rednecks.” Wallace was definitely a man of the people
Jim Folsom, for the gubernatorial elections coming soon, asked Wallace to lead his South Alabama campaign. Wallace replied that he was “already spreading the Folsom gospel.” Because Folsom was so popular with the voters, Wallace was not hesitant in tying the two names together. Politically, it helped to give Wallace higher standing and a deeper understanding of what it took to win the voters, but Wallace would later regret and deny those ties. While campaigning, Wallace paid careful attention to how Folsom handled his focus. Folsom taught Wallace that it was just as important to acknowledge the people who sent five dollars as it was those who sent hundreds: “they each had the same number of family and friends.” He instructed Wallace to convince voters that “they were part of an important crusade.” It was Folsom’s instructions that aided Wallace in later years as he became the unforgettable political figure that he was.
With the ongoing cry for desegregation, Folsom began to lose his popularity. His ideals to keep the “poor man united” began to anger the people. In August 1955, African Americans petitioned the Alabama State Department of Education to desegregate the county schools. By February 3, 1956, a young black woman named Autherine Lucy entered the University of Alabama with an order from the federal court in Birmingham backing her up. The situation turned out to be a nightmare. The young woman was forced to leave the campus by angry white mobs pummeling her with rocks and rotten eggs. The episode turned out to be a disaster for Folsom as well. Folsom had made no effort to intervene in the court’s decision, and when he was seen having a drink with the Harlem congressman, Adam Powell, the white voters of Alabama were outraged. Wallace intuitively decided that Folsom’s career was over. When Folsom argued with the state Senate that relocating southern black to northern communities would be detrimental to the South, it proved that Wallace was right. Big Jim’s political career was in ruins. White Alabamians were tired of the Civil Rights.
Wallace saw opportunity where Folsom had seen defeat. With Folsom out, Wallace saw a chance to win his coveted position, Governor of Alabama. Wallace threw himself into position, and began his campaign. With his unfailing energy and voter recognition, the observers put Wallace as a hard man to beat, but Wallace, despite his popularity lacked the funds to procure dominant spaces in advertising. This coupled with his decision to run with a moderate ticket concerning racial views proved to be his undoing. His opponent, General John Patterson, was raking in the votes. Patterson moved forward on a ticket that promised white dominance for Alabama, a scenario that looked very good to the majority of white voters in a state where civil rights were threatening their very way of life. Patterson was “swept” into office, but Wallace learned from his mistakes. He promised that he would not fall into the pit of moderation again.
In the fall of 1958 opportunity opened itself up yet again for Wallace. Hearing that the newly established Civil Rights Commission intended to investigate the voting rights in Alabama, specifically the counties Wallace, as circuit judge, presided over, he decided to use this for his own personal gain. Remembering what Folsom had told him, “Make no small plans,” Wallace geared himself up. With an order from the district attorney from Alabama, Frank Johnson, Wallace was instructed to turn over the voting records of his counties to the Civil Rights Commission. Johnson threatened that if Wallace did not comply with the order in four days, he would be jailed. Wallace told newspaper reporters that he “intended to stand up and defend the rights of the people of Alabama, regardless of the personal sacrifices.” Johnson had been an old friend of Wallace’s in college and felt that he owed Wallace a favor because Wallace had sent a letter of support to President Eisenhower to have Johnson nominated as federal judge. With this in mind, Johnson agreed to meet with Wallace privately over the matter. Wallace told Johnson that he planned to run for governor again in the next election, and that a decided defiance of the Civil Rights Commission would “guarantee his election.” Johnson was unmoved, but the two men eventually came to an agreement. Wallace would turn the records over to the grand jury of each county, who would then turn them over to the Civil Rights Commission. Secretly the deed was carried out as planned. The Civil Rights Commission was given the opportunity to look over the records, however “before the bench” days afterward, Wallace’s attorney threw up his arms and proclaimed, “We plead guilty. We plead guilty.” To the voters of Alabama, George Wallace had stood up for states rights. He had been “willing to risk his freedom,” and won.
Using this as his platform, he again ran for the governor’s race in 1962. As an unshakable speaker for states rights and southern harmony, he pursued his race with a relish, crying, “I’ll be standing in the schoolhouse door.” Wallace did not realize at the time that he would actually have to carry through with what he promised. By choosing to make racial issues in Alabama his main issue in his campaign, “endorsements came pouring in.” With slogans like “Vote right – vote white – vote for the fighting judge,” and “Segregation now… segregation tomorrow… segregation forever,” voters were sent into a Wallace made frenzy. He attacked the federal government continually, referring to them as “destroying… our very way of life.” Wallace promised his voters “not only victory, but the balm of righteousness.” Wallace’s opponents did not stand a chance.
Just months after Wallace’s election, his promises were in jeopardy. In the spring of 1963, Wallace learned that the federal government planned to enforce its law of desegregated schools in Alabama. The University of Alabama would be its target. As George Wallace’s alma mater, and with a political agenda to defend, the governor proudly told government officials that, yes, indeed, he would follow through with his promise. He would stand in the courthouse door. President Kennedy knew he had a situation on his hands. Recoiling from skepticism concerning the Cuban Missile Crisis, and other civil rights problems gone amiss, Kennedy knew that he must take action. Although Wallace had promised a “no evidence” tact, Kennedy and his aides knew that emotions would run high. Kennedy did not want another riot like the one in Mississippi. Robert Kennedy decided to have a meeting with Wallace. Reluctantly, Wallace agreed, but the meeting did not go well for either of the men. Wallace refused to cooperate, insisting that he would not depart from his promise to block the entranceway to the school. Kennedy informed Wallace that he would not be using troops. Wallace, it seemed, wanted troops to give the situation a more dramatic flair. With no compromises from either side, the appointed day finally came. As Wallace had promised, he refused to yield. Upon hearing this, Kennedy had Wallace’s National Guard federalized. National Guard general, Henry Graham, was asked to take command. Reluctantly, he asked Governor Wallace to “step aside.” Wallace responded, “But for the unwarranted federalization of the National Guard, I would be your commander-in-chief. It is a bitter pill to swallow.” As always, Wallace was aware of the cameras pointed at him, and the crowds were watching.
Martin Luther King, Jr. told CBS television correspondent Dan Rather that “Wallaceism is bigger than Wallace.” He was referring to Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door. King’s statement was dead on. Southerners loved the ideas that Wallace pushed toward them. They embraced his views that the federal government was too intrusive into state rights. Even though the shocking and depressing times that centered around the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where four young girls were killed, “Wallaceism” prevailed. Emory magazine quotes Dan Carter insisting that “if [Wallace] did not create the conservative groundswell that transformed American politics in the 1980s, he anticipated most of its themes. It was Wallace who sensed and gave voice to a growing national white backlash in the 1960s; it was Wallace who warned of the danger to the American soul posed by the ‘intellectual snobs who don’t know the difference between smut and great literature’: it was Wallace who railed against federal bureaucrats who not only wasted the tax dollars of hardworking Americans, but lacked the common sense to ‘park their bicycles straight.” Indeed, Wallace pursued with these thoughts, and with them posed a serious threat to opponents in the 1968 presidential campaign.
With an opponent like Nixon, Wallace knew that if he were to stand a chance he would have to have the funds to do so. The majority of the money came mostly from the men that Wallace put so much emphasis on, the blue-collar workers, the skilled laborers, the poor, and the middle class. Looking at the numbers, it says a lot about George Wallace. With contributions of under fifty dollars a piece, Wallace had managed to sustain quite a sum of money, nine million dollars. Although, some of the money did come from larger contributions like wealthy Texas oilman, Bunker Hunt. The PBS film, “The American Experience: Settin’ the Woods on Fire” reports that John Wayne had written a check out to Wallace in the name of “sock it to ’em, George.” Even with the numbers backing Wallace in the South, he knew that he still had a difficult road ahead of him. Wallace’s aim was to take the votes from Nixon and Humphrey and have the election decided in the House of Representatives.
The Emerging Republican Majority by Kevin Phillips points out that there were two very important movements going on at this time: Geographical and sociological. Phillips ascertains that a large majority of the U.S. population was booming in the southernmost states, or Sunbelt. Also, that a large majority of these people were living in the “new suburbs.” Phillips submits that it was the working class who lived in these suburbs. Wallace must have had a sense of that, with his uncanny intuition and political smarts: These were his political targets. Beginning in California, and working state by state, George promoted his campaign to receive the necessary votes to register his independent party’s ticket. He was making his way. “The American Experience: Settin’ the Woods on fire” reported that month before the election, 23 percent in the Electoral College supported George Wallace. Compared to Nixon’s votes, Wallace’s seemed small, but Nixon was furious with the counts. Wallace had won the five southern most states, and “threatened the Southern foundation of the future of the Republican majority Nixon hoped to build. The most salient numbers to emerge in the wake of the 1968 election came from pollsters Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg: four of every five Wallace voters in the South would have voted for Nixon with Wallace out of the contest,” Dan Carter writers. Carter also asserts that it is Nixon who forced Wallace out of the election. Carter believes that Nixon “marshaled the forces of the Internal Revenue Service to put a stop to Wallace’s third party aspirations…” The IRS looked through the tax returns of Wallace, his brother, and anyone who supported Wallace through the state. No indictments were made, but Carter ascertains that something “fishy” was going on. Just twenty-four hours after the investigation, Wallace announced that he was “pulling out of the race as a third-party candidate in order to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination.” With Wallace out of the way Nixon had a much better chance of reelection. (Comprised of 1968 and 1972 elections)
On May 15, 1972 any ambitions Wallace may have been parenting for his third run for the presidency were literally shot down. Arthur Bremer, a janitor from Milwaukee, attempted to assassinate George Wallace as he campaigned for the Democratic nomination in Maryland. Paralyzing Wallace, the shooting marked an end for the energetic politician’s ambitions. However, he did regain governorship of Alabama again later.
Lloyd Armour, a retired newspaper editor says, “George Corley Wallace remains a political phenomenon that could only happen in the South.” Dan Carter voices the same opinion when he argues Wallace was the leader of a wave of Republican leaders that followed not long after. Carter ascertains that one of the most loved presidents of the time, Ronald Reagan, honing in on the same type of voters that Wallace campaigned for, took the same ideas and values that the Alabama governor had and made them more appealing. People don’t want to admit that Wallace was at the forefront of the wave of conservatism that came in because it isn’t appealing that a racist southerner would be the parent to the ideas so many still entrust. Although many have forgiven Wallace for the bitterness he created, it isn’t easy to forget. Again, Emory Magazine quotes Carter as saying, “Wallace [was] repentant, I believe that. What infuriates me is the belief that somehow, because somebody asks for forgiveness, we forget what happened and we pretend that it didn’t take place. It does sound sort of naive, but we can’t recognize who we are unless we really do recognize where we’ve been and be honest about it.” J.L. Chestnut says about Wallace, “Forgive, yes. Forget, never.” It is certain that even though many forgiving black leaders attended Wallace’s funeral, they must have also remembered the song sang in the march for civil rights in Selma, “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on. I’ve never been to heaven, but I think I’m right, You won’t find George Wallace anywhere in sight….”
Carter, Dan; The Politics of Rage; April 2000