George Wallace

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George Wallace in 1968

George Corley Wallace Jr, sometimes referred to as George Corley Wallace Sr (born August 25, 1919 in Clio, Barbour County; died September 13, 1998 in Montgomery), was Governor of Alabama for four full terms and ran unsuccessfully four times for President of the United States. He is best known for his segregationist attitudes, which later in life he claimed to reject.

Early life

Wallace was born in Clio in Barbour County in southeastern Alabama to George Corley Wallace and Mozell Smith. He became a regionally successful boxer in his high school days, then went directly to law school at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 1937. After receiving a law degree in 1942, he enlisted in the US Army Air Corps, flying combat missions over Japan during World War II. Wallace attained the rank of staff sergeant in the 58th Bomb Wing of the 20th Air Force Division. He served under General Curtis LeMay, who would be his running mate in the 1968 presidential race. While in the service, Wallace nearly died of spinal meningitis, but prompt medical attention saved him. He was left with partial hearing loss and nerve damage, and was medically discharged with a disability pension.

Entry into politics

In 1938, at age 19, Wallace contributed to his grandfather's successful campaign for probate judge. Late in 1945, he was appointed Assistant Attorney General of Alabama, and during May 1946, he won his first election as a member to the Alabama House of Representatives. At the time, he was considered a moderate on racial issues. As a delegate to the 1948 Democratic National Convention, he did not join the Southern walkout at the convention, despite his opposition to President Harry Truman's proposed civil rights program, which he considered an infringement on states' rights. The dissenting Democrats, known as Dixiecrats, supported then-Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina for the presidency. In his 1963 inauguration as governor, Wallace 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 the time was the decisive election, the general election still almost always being a mere formality in Alabama. This was a political crossroads for Wallace. Patterson had run with the support of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization Wallace had spoken against, while Wallace had been endorsed by the NAACP. 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.

Wallace swore his oath of office on January 14, 1963, standing on the gold star where, 102 years prior, Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as President of the Confederate States of America. In his inaugural speech, he used the line for which he is best known: "In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." The lines were written by Wallace's new speechwriter, Asa Carter, a Klansman and longtime anti-Semite. Wallace later stated that he had not read this part of the speech prior to delivering it, and that he had regretted it almost immediately. However, he did not hesitate to repeat it.

Wallace makes a show of defying federal officials at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963

On June 11, 1963 he stood in front of Foster Auditorium 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. This became known as the "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door." Wallace stood aside only after being confronted by federal marshals, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, and the Alabama National Guard. However, there is evidence that the entire encounter was partially or wholly coordinated with the Kennedy administration to allow Wallace to save face with Alabama voters.

The principal achievement of Governor Wallace's first term was an innovation in Alabama development that several other states later adopted: he was the first Southern governor to travel to corporate headquarters in Northern and Northeastern states to offer tax abatements and other incentives to companies willing to locate plants in Alabama. Numerous companies did so, notably shoe and textile manufacturers from the Northeast, and others such as Uniroyal, which located its first modern tire plant in Opelika, Alabama.

Wallace also initiated a junior college system that is now spread throughout the state, preparing many students to complete four-year degrees at Auburn University or the University of Alabama.

Wallace disapproved vehemently of the desegregation of the state of Alabama and wanted desperately for his state to remain segregated. In his own words: "The President (Kennedy) wants us to surrender this state to Martin Luther King and his group of pro-Communists who have instituted these demonstrations."

Presidential ambitions

Using the infamous public image created by the University of Alabama controversy, he mounted his first attempt to win national office in the 1964 presidential election, 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, opposition to civil rights for blacks, message of states' rights, and "law and order" platform during the turbulent 1960s appeared to have national appeal.

Wallace ran again as a third-party candidate in the 1968 presidential election as the American Party candidate, and as a Democrat in 1972 and 1976.

First Gentleman of Alabama

Alabama's state constitution prevented him from seeking a second term in 1966, a restriction that was eventually repealed, largely due to the work of his backers. However, the repeal of the term limit was not in time for Wallace himself to run that year.

Wallace circumvented this by having his wife, Lurleen Wallace, run for the office as a surrogate candidate, similar to the 1917 run of Ma Ferguson for the governorship of Texas on behalf of her husband James E. Ferguson, who had been impeached and was barred from running.

Mrs. Wallace won the election in the fall of 1966, and was inaugurated in January, 1967.

Lurleen Wallace died in office on May 7, 1968, during her husband's presidential campaign. She was succeeded by Lieutenant Governor Albert Brewer, reducing Wallace's influence. Wallace came back to win a run-off against Brewer in the 1970 Democratic primary, then proceeded to return to office with an easy victory over National Democratic Party of Alabama candidate John Cashin in the 1970 general election.

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. He 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 end federal efforts at desegregation.

Wallace ran a "law and order" campaign similar to that of the Republican former Vice President, Richard Nixon. Nixon himself worried that Wallace might steal enough votes to give the election to the Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Some Democrats feared Wallace's appeal to blue-collar workers and union members (who usually vote Democratic) would hurt Humphrey in Northern states like Ohio, New Jersey, and Michigan.

Wallace's campaign rhetoric became infamous, such as when he pledged to run over any demonstrators who got in front of his limousine and asserted that the only four letter words that hippies did not know were w-o-r-k and s-o-a-p. He accused Humphrey and Nixon of wanting to radically desegregate the South. Wallace said, "There's not a dime's worth of difference between the Democrat and Republican Parties." His campaign in California and other states attracted the interest of the far right, including the John Birch Society.

Most of the media opposed Wallace, but some southern newspapers enthusiastically backed him. George W. Shannon (1914–1998) of the now defunct Shreveport Journal, for instance, wrote countless editorials supporting the third-party concept in presidential elections. Wallace repaid Shannon by appearing at Shannon's retirement dinner.

Wallace's "outsider" status was once again popular with voters, particularly in the rural South. Although he won almost 10 million popular votes and carried five Southern states, Nixon still received 31 electoral votes more than he needed to win the election outright. Even so, Wallace still remains the last non-Democrat, non-Republican candidate to win any electoral votes. He was the first such person since Harry F. Byrd, an independent segregationist candidate in the 1960 presidential election. (John Hospers in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1976, Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 and John Edwards in 2004 all received one electoral vote from dissenters, but none "won" these votes.) Wallace also 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." 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. His platform also contained a few progressive planks, such as generous increases for beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare.

Second term as governor

In 1970, Wallace was elected governor of Alabama for a second term. He faced incumbent governor Albert Brewer, who became the first gubernatorial candidate since Reconstruction to openly court black voters. Brewer, hoping to build a broad alliance between blacks and white working class voters, unveiled a progressive platform and accused Wallace of spending too much time outside the state, saying "Alabama needs a full-time governor."

In an effort to weaken the prospects of another presidential campaign in 1972, President Nixon backed Brewer in the Democratic primary, and arranged an Internal Revenue Service investigation of possible illegalities in the Wallace campaign. Brewer got the most votes in the primary but failed to win an outright majority, triggering a run-off election.

Wallace, whose presidential ambitions would have been destroyed with a defeat, ran "one of the nastiest campaigns in state history," using racist rhetoric while proposing few ideas of his own.

The campaign worked, and Wallace defeated Brewer in the runoff. The day after the election, he flew to Wisconsin to campaign for the White House.

A Gallup Poll at the time showed Wallace to be the seventh most admired man in America, just ahead of Pope Paul VI.

Third presidential bid

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 Humphrey, and nine other Democratic opponents, Wallace won 42 percent of the vote, carrying every county in the state. While running for President, Wallace also claimed he was no longer for segregation, and had always been a moderate.

Assassination attempt

While campaigning in Laurel, Maryland, on May 15, 1972, Wallace was shot five times by Arthur Bremer. Three others wounded in the shooting also 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 for fame, and that President Nixon had been a possible target. The assassination attempt left Wallace paralyzed, as one of the bullets had lodged in his spinal column.

Following the shooting, Wallace won primaries in Maryland, Michigan, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Wallace spoke at the Democratic National Convention from his wheelchair in Miami on July 11, 1972. The eventual Democratic nominee, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota would be defeated by President Nixon in a landslide, with Nixon carrying 49 of the 50 states, losing only in Massachusetts.

While Wallace was recovering in Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland , 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's return to Alabama on July 7. Wallace never returned to Maryland.

Bremer was sentenced to 53 years in prison for the shooting. He served 35 years of the sentence and was released on parole on November 9, 2007.

Fourth presidential bid

In November 1975, Wallace announced his fourth and final bid for the presidency. The campaign was plagued by voters' concerns with his health, as well as the media's constant use of images of his apparent "helplessness." His supporters complained such coverage was motivated by bias against him, citing the discretion used by some of the same organizations in coverage, or lack of coverage, of Franklin D. Roosevelt's paralysis three decades earlier and before television became commercially available. The South turned to Jimmy Carter to lead them to the White House. Calculating all the southern primaries and caucuses, Wallace only carried Mississippi, South Carolina and his home state of Alabama. Oddly enough calculating the popular votes in all primaries and caucuses, Wallace placed third behind Jimmy Carter and California Governor Jerry Brown. After all the primaries ended losing several Southern primaries to former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, Wallace dropped out of the race in June 1976. He eventually endorsed Carter, while claiming that he facilitated a Southerner's presidential nomination.

Change of views before final term

In the late 1970s, Wallace became a born-again Christian, and in the same era apologized to black civil rights leaders for his earlier segregationist views, calling these views wrong. He said that while he once sought power and glory, he realized he needed to seek love and forgiveness. His final term as Governor (1983–1987) saw a record number of black Alabamians appointed to government positions.

Wallace's main opponents in the 1982 Alabama gubernatorial Democratic primary were Lieutenant Governor George McMillian and Alabama House Speaker Joe McCorquodale. McCorquodale was eliminated in the primary, and the vote went to a runoff between Wallace and McMillian, with Wallace holding a slight edge. Wallace won the Democratic nomination by a margin of 51 to 49 percent.

His next opponent would be Montgomery mayor Emory Folmar, a Republican, in the general election. Most polling experts said this was the best chance for a Republican to be elected Alabama governor since Reconstruction. However, Wallace won the general election easily, with a margin of 62 to 39 percent.

Counting Lurleen Wallace's term as his surrogate, George Wallace had the remarkable achievement of winning five gubernatorial terms across three decades, totaling 17 years in office (it would have been 20 had Lurleen served four years instead of 17 months).

Final years

In his later days, Wallace became something of a fixture at a Montgomery restaurant a few blocks from the State Capitol that he had almost totally controlled in the past. In constant pain, he was surrounded by an entourage of old friends and visiting well-wishers and continued this ritual until only a few weeks before his death.

Wallace was the subject of a documentary, George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire, shown by PBS on the American Experience in 2000.

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."

Wallace may have risen to power on the politics of racism, but some insist that he was not simply a racist. A black lawyer recalls, "Judge George Wallace was the most liberal judge that I had ever practiced law in front of. He was the first judge in Alabama to call me 'Mister' in a courtroom." Later, when a supporter asked why he started using racist messages, Wallace replied, "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 died of septic shock from a bacterial infection in Jackson Hospital in Montgomery on September 13, 1998. He had suffered from Parkinson's disease and respiratory problems in addition to complications from his gun-shot spinal injury.

The Interstate 10 tunnel which traverses the Mobile River is named in honor of Wallace.

Marriages and children

Wallace's first wife, Lurleen Burns Wallace, was the first (and, as of 2007, only) woman to be elected as governor of Alabama. They had four children together: Bobbie Jo (1944), Peggy Sue (1950) Kennedy, George III (1951), and Janie Lee (1961) Dye, who was named after Robert E. Lee.

Lurleen died of cancer in 1968, while governor of Alabama. By the time of her funeral on May 9, Wallace had moved out of the governor's mansion and back to a home they had bought in Montgomery in 1967. Their children, aged 18, 16, and 6, were "distributed" to family members and friends for care (their eldest daughter had already married and left home.

Their son, commonly called George Wallace Jr., is a Republican active in Alabama politics. He was twice elected State Treasurer. He was an elected member of the Public Service Commission until he sought the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor. He lost in a runoff in July 2006, despite support obtained from popular Arizona U.S. Senator John McCain.

George Wallace later remarried and divorced twice. On January 4 1971, he wed Cornelia Ellis Snively, a niece of former Alabama Governor Jim Folsom, Sr The couple was divorced in 1978. In 1981, Wallace married Lisa Taylor, a country music singer, but the relationship ended in 1987.

Preceded by:
John Malcolm Patterson (D)
Governor of Alabama
Succeeded by:
Lurleen Wallace (D)
Preceded by:
Albert Brewer (D)
Governor of Alabama
Succeeded by:
Forrest H. "Fob" James, Jr., (D)
Preceded by:
Forrest H. "Fob" James, Jr., (D)
Governor of Alabama
Succeeded by:
H. Guy Hunt (R)


  • Carter, Dan T. (1995) The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press ISBN 0807125970
  • "George Wallace" (December 22, 2007) Wikipedia, - accessed December 24, 2007
  • Wallace, George Jr (2011) Governor George Wallace, The Man You Never Knew. self-published

External links