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George C. Wallace

George C. Wallace

Excerpt from his inaugural speech, delivered January 14, 1963
Reprinted from Our Nation's Archive.
Published in 1999.

"We invite the Negro citizen of Alabama to work with us from his separate racial station to grow in individual freedom and enrichment.…"

George Corley Wallace (1919–1998) made himself a national symbol of racism in the 1960s. During his five-year tenure as an Alabama judge starting in 1953, he established a reputation as an opponent of all civil rights legislation.

Born on August 25, 1919, the son of a cotton farmer in rural Clio, Alabama, George Corley Wallace spent most of his life as an "underdog," someone who was unlikely to succeed. However, he worked hard from an early age to help earn money for his family and to eventually pay his way through college. His first taste of politics came when he was fifteen; he took a part-time position as a page in the Alabama Senate. In college, he launched a campaign to appeal to independent and out-of-state students to beat the favored, fraternity-backed candidates in the race for presidency of his freshman class. After college he joined the Air Force in 1942 and flew several missions during World War II (1939–45).

After his military discharge, Wallace became assistant to the attorney general of Alabama in 1946. The next year he launched his political career, winning a seat in the state legislature. Throughout the 1950s Wallace had a reputation as a racially tolerant liberal. When he first ran for governor in 1958, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People endorsed his candidacy. After losing the Alabama governorship to a strident racist, though, Wallace revised his moderate political agenda to a platform that promised to defy federal pressure for racial integration. With his new strong position, Wallace won the governor's race in 1962, backed by the Ku Klux Klan, a militant white supremacist group.

His inaugural speech captured the anger of those in southern states who felt that the federal government had overstepped its authority by passing federal desegregation laws. While Wallace's stance on segregation brought him into the national limelight, he committed himself as governor to fight for states' right to determine their own laws. Wallace believed that the federal government should be very limited in its authority to regulate laws in individual states. He worked hard to curb the federal government's attempts to pass laws that he believed should be decided by the residents of each state.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from George Wallace's 1963 inaugural speech:

  • While serving as an Alabama judge, George Wallace drew public attention and the nickname "The Fighting Judge" when he publicly refused to turn over voter registration records to the United States Civil Rights Commission. Later, he quietly ordered the records to be given to the commission, but his new nickname stuck.
  • Wallace contended that his stance on racial segregation had more to do with states' rights than race.
  • Wallace established a large political following in Alabama because of his opposition to racial segregation.

Excerpt from George Wallace's inaugural speech, January 14, 1963

Today I have stood where onceJefferson Davis stood and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very heart of the great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom [.…]

Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to thetyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that ever trod this earth, Idraw the line in the dust andtoss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say: segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever [.…]

Government has become our God. It is a system that is the very opposite of Christ. Theinternational racism of the liberals seeks to persecute theinternational white minority to the whim of theinternational colored so that we arefootballed about according to the favor of the Afro-Asian bloc.… [If the races]amalgamate into the one unit…then we become amongrel unit of one under a single, all-powerful government.…

We invite the Negro citizen of Alabama to work with us from his separate racial station to grow in individual freedom and enrichment.…

But we warn those of any group who would follow the false doctrines ofcommunistic amalgamation that we will not surrender our system of government, our freedom of race and religion [that] was won at a hard price; and if it requires a hard price to retain it, we are able—and quite willing—to pay it.

What happened next…

George Wallace spent the duration of the 1960s working to prevent desegregation. While he served as governor of Alabama, civil rights activists suffered violence at the hands of state troopers. Several blacks were killed in racially motivated acts in Alabama, including four small black girls who were killed after a bomb placed under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church by a Ku Klux Klan member exploded on September 13, 1963.

Nationally recognized as a desegregationist, Wallace ran for the U.S. presidency in 1968 on a racist platform but lost to Richard Nixon. Four years later, Wallace ran another presidential campaign and received a great deal of southern support. While campaigning, Wallace was shot five times by Arthur H. Bremer in a failed assassination attempt that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He withdrew from the race. (Bremer, whose motives for the shooting remain unclear, was sentenced to fifty-three years in prison.)

Wallace did not retire permanently from politics despite using a wheelchair. In 1982 he regained the governorship of Alabama and served out a fifth term in the office with the support of many blacks. In the 1980s, Wallace reinvented himself as a more moderate politician and reversed his position about many racial issues. During his last term in office, Wallace worked to increase the numbers of black voters in Alabama and appointed approximately 150 blacks to legislative committees and other advisory groups.

Wallace tried to explain the dramatic shift in his political opinions to Carl T. Rowan of the Washington Post in 1991. About saying the words "segregation now, tomorrow and forever," Wallace said, "I have regretted it all my life." He went on to explain that "When I first ran for governor…I had to stand up for segregation or be defeated, but I never insulted black people by calling them inferior, that statement in 1963 about 'segregation forever' and my stand in the classroom door reflected my vehemence, my belligerence, against the federal court system that seemed to be taking over everything in the South." Wallace's shift in stances may have had less to do with his true feelings about the issues and more to do with his desire to hold political office. According to Hank Sanders, a black member of the Alabama Senate quoted in the New York Times, Wallace was "a man who just had a keen sense of which way the political winds were blowing, and the nose to follow them."

Did you know…

  • George Wallace tried to physically prevent two black students from entering the University of Alabama in 1963. His refusal to admit them to the campus prompted President John F. Kennedy to send National Guard troops to ensure the students' enrollment.
  • During his first term as governor, Wallace authorized state troopers to prevent the desegregation of Alabama's public schools. Alabama was the last southern state to desegregate schools in 1963.
  • On March 7, 1965, civil rights activists began a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to bring attention to the voting rights cause. Wallace sent mounted state troopers to prevent them. Using tear gas and clubs, the troopers stopped the march at the Pettus Bridge just outside Selma. On March 9, police blocked yet another march, which leader Martin Luther King Jr. turned back. When the activists eventually won court permission to proceed, thousands of supporters marched to Montgomery, winning national publicity for their cause. Soon after, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed through Congress.
  • The percentage of black students attending integrated schools in the seventeen southern states rose from 6.4 percent in 1960 to 84.3 percent in 1970.

Consider the following…

  • Near the end of his life, George C. Wallace tried to reverse his reputation as a racist, saying that his efforts were not anti-black but anti-federal government. His actions reflected his anger at the federal court system, which he believed was stripping the states of their authority. Can you make a case for this distinction?
  • Do you think Wallace could have won the governorship of Alabama without taking a stand on segregation? Explain your reasoning.
  • When Wallace ran for presidency in 1968, he campaigned mostly as an opponent of desegregation. Do you think his choice to run as an opponent of desegregation was more effective than a choice to run as a proponent of states' rights? Why?

For More Information

Books

Bruun, Erik, and Jay Crosby, eds. Our Nation's Archive: The History of the United States in Documents. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 1999.

Crass, Philip, The Wallace Factor. New York: Mason/Charter, 1976.

Dorman, Michael, The George Wallace Myth. New York: Bantam, 1976.

Lesher, Stephan, George Wallace: American Populist. Addison-Reading, MA: Wesley, 1994.

Schneider, Gregory L., ed. Conservatism in America since 1930. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Periodicals

Hirsley, Michael. "Ex-Alabama Gov. George Wallace; Opposed Integration in the 1960s." Chicago Tribune (September 14, 1998): p. 7.

Pearson, Richard. "Former Ala. Gov. George C. Wallace Dies." Washington Post (September 14, 1998): p. A1.

Raines, Howell. "George Wallace, Symbol of the Fight to Maintain Segregation, Dies at 79." New York Times (September 15, 1998): p. B10.

Rowan, Carl T. "The Rehabilitation of George Wallace." Washington Post (September 5, 1991): p. A21.

Web sites

Alabama Department of Archives and History.http://www.archives.state.al.us/govs_list/inauguralspeech.html (accessed on August 4, 2004).

Jefferson Davis (1808–1889): The president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.

Tyranny: In this case, tyranny refers to the U.S. federal government, which passed laws that overruled some laws of Southern states.

Draw the line in the dust: Similar to "Draw a line in the sand," meaning to mark the point at which an opponent should not pass.

Toss the gauntlet: Similar to "Throw down the gauntlet," meaning to open a challenge.

International racism, international white, and international colored: Wallace is referring to the theory that white southerners are being persecuted by those who want to eliminate racial differences.

Footballed: Tossed.

Amalgamate: Combined.

Mongrel unit of one: A racially mixed citizenry.

Communistic amalgamation: Social mixing that results in the unification of people into a single, mixed race.

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