Obituary: George Wallace

Rupert Cornwell
Tuesday 15 September 1998 00:02 BST

FOR MOST of his political career George Wallace, four times Governor of Alabama and twice a major contender for the White House, was the living epitomy of the racist Democrat politics of the old south. True, changing realities would later force him to recant, so successfully that he even managed to persuade a fair proportion of black voters to support him. But it was as a diehard white supremacist and segregationist, and eloquent foe of Washington and all its interventionist works, that he became a legend. That too was how he made his greatest mark upon American politics.

George Wallace Jr was born a farmer's son in arguably the most racist state in Dixie. He attended local schools until he was 18, when he enrolled at the University of Alabama Law School in 1937. Soon afterwards his father died, and George Jr was forced to pay his own way through college by working in restaurants, driving a taxi and by boxing professionally (he had twice won the state's Golden Gloves title at bantamweight in 1935 and 1936). Immediately after taking his law degree, he signed up for the air force. Although an attack of spinal meningitis cut short pilot training, he served with distinction as a flight engineer on a B-29 bomber in the Pacific and saw much action over Japan.

When he returned home in 1946, not only the law but politics beckoned. After serving as assistant state attorney general, he was elected to the Alabama legislature, where his skills as both orator and lawmaker were quickly in evidence. Wallace sponsored bills in education, crime and health care. Indeed, by the standards of the day he was a progressive - except in matters of race. Elected to the state judiciary in 1953, he soon became known as the "Fighting Judge" for his opposition to civil rights and federal efforts to stamp out discrimination against black voters. But the segregationist, it would transpire, would not be segregationist enough.

By 1958 Wallace had set his sights on the Governorship. He was defeated however by John Patterson in the Democratic party primary that year. Patterson had the support of the Ku Klux Klan, and Wallace forever blamed the defeat on his opponent having "out-segged" him: never again, he vowed publicly, would he be "out-niggahed" by anyone. Four years later he swept the primary (in effect the general election, given the Democrats overwhelming numerical superiority in the state), after a campaign in which one paper described him as "a one-man army at war with the federal government".

Wallace made his intentions plain in his inaugural address with the famous pledge of "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" The governor had proclaimed war on the burgeoning civil rights movement - or in his own words "tossed the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny." Five months later, on June 12, 1963, just as he had promised during the campaign, he personally blocked the door to two black students as they tried to enter the main campus of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. It was a pivotal moment in America's civil rights struggle. President Kennedy placed the Alabama National Guard under federal authority and ordered it to escort the students into the building. Wallace was forced to step aside. The students duly enrolled, and that evening President Kennedy declared on national television that "race has no place in American life or law."

But the setback, and the subsequent civil rights acts pushed through by President Lyndon Johnson only galvanised Wallace. Having been defeated at state level, he would carry the fight to Washington directly. He installed his wife in the Montgomery state house, renounced the Democratic party and entered the 1968 Presidential race as leader of a newly-created American Independence Party. He was a compelling speaker, who touched chords of resentment everywhere, and played upon Americans' deeprooted suspicions of Big Government, at the very moment when Big Government was the doctrine of the day. Remarkably he won a place on the ballot in all 50 states. In the end, he won 9.9 million votes (13.5 per cent of the electorate) and carried five southern states with 46 electoral college votes.

It was the best showing by a third party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt and the Bull Moose election of 1912. Wallace had proved he could attract support outside the traditional south and arguably helped deny Hubert Humphrey the White House in the process. Most assuredly however, he set in motion the break-up of Franklin Roosevelt's historic Democratic coalition of northern workers and liberals and southern conservatives. The success of Wallace the populist, the articulator of the grievances of the little man, was not lost upon Richard Nixon and later Republican strategists. The old Confederacy gradually switched its allegiance to the party of its nemesis Abraham Lincoln. Not until an all-Southern Democratic ticket in 1992 would the balance be redressed - and then only in part.

But Wallace was not done. In 1970, and a Democrat once more, he was elected Governor for a second term, having campaigned on a virulent anti-black platform: "If I don't win, them niggers are going to control this state," he warned at rallies across Alabama. So successful was he that he decided to contest the Presidency again in 1972, this time as a Democrat. The campaign was prospering, with victories in several southern primaries and solid showings in the north, when on 15 May 1972 Arthur Bremer, a 21- year-old from Milwaukee, attempted to assassinate him during a rally at a shopping centre in Laurel, Maryland.

The day after, he won the primaries in both Maryland and the industrial state of Michigan. It was the highwater mark of his national political career. Indeed, in a weak and fractured Democratic field, a fit Wallace would have had a real chance of capturing the nomination. But though he survived, he was paralysed in both legs and thereafter confined to a wheelchair. The quest for the Presidency was over. And along with his physical circumstances, his political stance began to change as well.

Not only did his injury, and the intense physical pain from which he often suffered, confer a new respectability upon Wallace: they also seemed to give him a new respect for black Americans. The difference was already visible in 1974, when he won the Governorship for a third term. The firebrand oratory had mellowed, the image he projected was for the first time clearly anti-racist. But it was not until 1982, when after a four-year "retirement" at the University of Alabama he again sought the governor's mansion in Montgomery, that the new Wallace was truly forged. He won a record fourth term and, bolstered by wide support in the black community, 61 per cent of the vote.

The tone was set by his fourth inaugural in January 1983, 20 years almost to the day from "Segregation forever !" Wallace promised "justice and mercy" to all; a nation "that forgets its poor will lose its soul." He publicly apologised to the black community for his past racism and hostility to civil rights. The ironies fell over one another - never more so than when he crowned a black homecoming queen at the very university he had once vowed would remain all-white for ever. The "Fighting Judge" eventually appointed record numbers of blacks to state jobs.

Alabama would remain one of America's most backward states. But the rules of the old south applied no longer. The enfranchisement of blacks, and the steady population migration from the north to the "sunbelt" had changed the political face of its cities. Across the countryside, the old ways might live on, but produced too few votes to matter.

George Wallace to his credit understood this. "We thought it was in the best interests of all concerned, but we were mistaken," he said of segregationism in 1982. "The old south is gone." In 1986 he announced his retirement, and his final years were punctuated by illness, and ravaged by Parkinson's disease. But to the last Wallace's courage was indomitable. As for his legacy, Jimmy Carter, a fellow southern Governor who did become President put it best. "George Wallace's life helped define and reflect the political life of our region."

Rupert Cornwell

George Corley Wallace, lawyer and politician: born Clio, Alabama 25 April 1919; Governor of Alabama 1963-67, 1971-79, 1983-87; married 1943 Lurleen Burns (died 1968; one son, three daughters), 1971 Cornelia Ellis Snively (marriage dissolved 1978), 1981 Liza Taylor (marriage dissolved 1987); died Montgomery, Alabama 13 September 1998.

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