George Wallace

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George Wallace

George Corley Wallace (August 25, 1919September 13, 1998) was an American politician who was elected Governor of Alabama (as a Democrat) four times (1962, 1970, 1974 and 1982) and ran for U.S. President (in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976). His first wife, Lurleen Wallace, was the first (and, as of 2005, only) woman to ever be elected as Governor of Alabama.


Education and military service

Born in Clio, Alabama, he became a regionally successful boxer in his high school days before moving on to law school in the late 1930s. After receiving his law degree in 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force, flying combat missions over Japan during World War II. Wallace rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant. He served under General Curtis LeMay, who would be his running mate in the 1968 presidential race. While in service, Wallace nearly died from an attack of brain fever. Only prompt medical attention saved his life. The experience left him with partial hearing loss and nerve damage. He was discharged from the Air Force with a disability pension.

Early political activities

During May 1946 he won his first election as a representative to the Alabama state legislature. At the time he was considered somewhat of a progressive liberal on racial issues. As a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1948 he refused to join in on the Southern walkout at the Convention, despite being opposed to President Harry Truman's proposed civil rights program due to what he viewed as infringements on states' rights. In his 1963 gubernatorial inauguration, he excused this action on political grounds.

In 1953 he was elected judge in the Third Judicial Circuit Court. Here he became known as "the little fightin' judge," a reference to his boxing days.

Governor of Alabama

In 1958 he was defeated by John Patterson in Alabama's Democratic gubernatorial primary election, which at this point in Alabama history still was the decisive election, the general election still almost always being a mere formality. This was a political crossroads for Wallace; Patterson had run with the support of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization Wallace had spoken out against, while Wallace had been endorsed by the NAACP. After the election Wallace vowed "I'll never be outniggered again."

In the wake of his defeat, Wallace adopted a hard-line segregationist style, and used this stand to court the white vote in the next gubernatorial election. In 1962, he was elected governor on a pro-segregation, pro-states' rights platform in a landslide victory. In his inaugural speech he declared "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever." The lines were written by Wallace's new speechwriter, Asa Carter. Wallace later claimed that he had not read this part of the speech prior to delivering it, and that he had regretted it almost immediately.

On June 11, 1963 he stood in front of a schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama in an attempt to stop desegregation of that institution by the enrollment of two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood. Wallace only stood aside after being confronted by federal marshals, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, and the Alabama National Guard. Later in life he apologized for his opposition at that time to racial integration. One event that marked Wallace's first term as Governor was the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. In this infamous tragedy, four African-American girls were killed. Many civil rights leaders held Wallace and Birmingham police chief Eugene "Bull" Connor responsible for this hateful atmosphere. Martin Luther King went so far as to call Wallace and tell him the blood of the murdered children was on his hands. When reporters asked Wallace how he thought his actions were being received in Third World nations that America hoped to win to its side in the Cold War, Wallace responded: "The average man in Africa or Asia doesn't even know where he is, let alone where Alabama is."

Presidential ambitions

Using the infamous public image created by the University of Alabama controversy, he mounted his first presidential campaign in 1964, showing surprising strength as a national candidate in Democratic primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and Indiana, winning as much as a third of the vote. His "outsider" image and message of states' rights appeared to have national appeal.

Power behind the throne

Alabama's state constitution prevented him from seeking a second term in 1966, a restriction that was later repealed, largely due to the work of his backers. Wallace found a way around this by having his wife, Lurleen Wallace, run for the office. She won the election. It was widely known at the time of the election that George Wallace would actually run the state. His wife, however, passed away in 1968, when she was succeeded by Lieutenant Governor Albert Brewer, leaving Wallace somewhat out of power until he could mount a new bid for election in his own right in 1970.

American Independent Party presidential candidate

When Wallace ran for President in 1968, it was not as a Democrat but as a candidate of the American Independent Party.

Wallace hoped to receive enough electoral votes to force the House of Representatives to decide the election, presumably giving him the role of a power broker. Wallace hoped that Southern states could use their clout to extract concessions to end federal efforts at desegregation. This did not occur.

Wallace ran a "law and order" campaign similar to that of Republican candidate, former Vice President Richard Nixon (see Southern strategy), worrying Nixon that Wallace might steal enough votes to give the election to Democratic candidate Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Wallace's "outsider" status was once again popular with voters, particularly in the rural South, and he carried five Southern states, coming fairly close to receiving enough electoral votes to throw the election to the House of Representatives, and making him the last person to date actually to win electoral votes who was not the nominee of one of the two major parties, and the first since Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, who ran a similarly regionally-based anti-integrationist campaign two decades earlier. Additionally, he received the vote of one North Carolina elector who was pledged to Nixon.

Many found Wallace an entertaining campaigner, regardless of whether they approved of his opinions. To hippies who said he was a Nazi, he replied, "I was killing fascists when you punks were in diapers." To other hippies, he said, "You shout four letter words at me, well, I have two for you: S-O-A-P and W-O-R-K." Another memorable quote: "They're building a bridge over the Potomac for all the white liberals fleeing to Virginia."

Wallace said he disagreed with Abraham Lincoln that blacks should be able to vote, serve on juries, or hold public office—although he agreed with Lincoln that equality for blacks could come with education, uplift and time. (Before the Storm, Rick Perlstein, pg. 317)

In 1968 Wallace rode white fury at the 1967 Detroit riots (see Jerome Cavanagh) and won the Democratic presidential primary there, even though at this point he had decided to make the race that year from the vehicle of his own American Independent Party rather than as a Democrat.

Second term as Governor

In 1970 he was elected governor of Alabama for a second term. In an effort to weaken the prospects of another presidential campaign in 1972, President Nixon had backed the incumbent governor Albert Brewer in the Democratic primary, while at the same time arranging an IRS investigation of possible illegalities in the Wallace campaign. A Gallup poll at the time showed Wallace to be the seventh most admired man in America, just ahead of Pope Paul VI.

In early 1972 he once again declared himself a candidate for president, this time as a Democrat. When running in Florida against the liberal George McGovern, 1968 nominee Hubert H. Humphrey, and nine other Democratic opponents, Wallace won forty-two percent of the vote, carrying every county in the state.

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Wallace Campaign Button

While campaigning in Laurel, Maryland in May 1972, Wallace was shot four times by a would-be assassin named Arthur Herman Bremer. Three other people were wounded in the shooting; all survived. Bremer's diary, published after his arrest as An Assassin's Diary, showed that Bremer's assassination attempt was not motivated by politics, but by a desire to become famous, and that President Nixon had also been a possible target. The assassination attempt left Wallace paralyzed, as one of the bullets that hit him had lodged in his spinal column.

Following the shooting, Wallace won primaries in Maryland, Michigan, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Confined to a wheelchair, Wallace spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Miami in the summer of 1972. The eventual Democratic nominee, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota would go on to be defeated by President Nixon in an overwhelming landslide, with Nixon carrying 49 of the 50 states.

While Wallace was recovering in a Maryland hospital, he was out of the state for more than 20 days, so the state constitution required the lieutenant governor, Jere Beasley, to serve as acting governor from June 5 until Wallace returned to Alabama on July 7.

In November, 1975 Wallace announced his fourth and final bid for the presidency. The following campaign was plagued by voters' concerns with his health problems, as well as the media's constant use of images of his apparent "helplessness", which his supporters complained was politically motivated by bias against him, citing the discretion used by some of the same organizations in coverage, or rather the lack of coverage, of the paralysis of Franklin Delano Roosevelt three decades earlier. After losing several Southern primaries to former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, Wallace dropped out of the race in June, 1976, eventually endorsing Carter while boasting that he had made it possible for a Southerner to be nominated for president.

Change of views

In the late 1970s Wallace became a born-again Christian, and around the same time apologized to black Civil Rights leaders for his earlier segregationist views, calling these views wrong. He said that while once he had sought power and glory, he realized he needed to seek love and forgiveness. It was perhaps because of the constant pain from his injuries that Wallace realized the harm his racist rhetoric and views had caused blacks. His final term as Governor (19831987) saw a record number of black Alabamians appointed to government positions.

Second and third marriage

George Wallace remarried twice, with each marriage ending in divorce. In 1971, he wed Cornelia Ellis Snively, a niece of former Alabama Governor James E. Folsom ("Big Jim"). The couple were divorced in 1978. In 1981 Wallace later married Lisa Taylor, a country music singer. That relationship ended in 1987.

Final years

In his later days, he became something of a fixture at a Montgomery restaurant only a few blocks from the State Capitol which he had almost totally run in the past. Despite being in pain, he was surrounded by an entourage of old friends and visiting well-wishers. He continued this ritual until only a few weeks before his death, by which time he had grown too ill.

On one occasion, when asked by a reporter which contemporary American political figure he most admired, he paused thoughtfully for a moment, smiled, and said: "Myself".

He died in Montgomery, Alabama.

External links


Preceded by: (first term)
John Patterson
Governor of Alabama
Succeeded by: (first term)
Lurleen Wallace
Preceded by: (second term)
Albert Brewer
Succeeded by: (second term)
Forrest H. "Fob" James, Jr.
Preceded by: (third term)
Forrest H. "Fob" James, Jr.
Succeeded by: (third term)
H. Guy Hunt
Interim governor in 1972: Jere Beasley
nl:George Wallace

pl:George Wallace


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