Wallace, George Corley, Jr.
WALLACE, George Corley, Jr.
(b. 25 August 1919 in Clio, Alabama; d. 13 September 1998 in Montgomery, Alabama), four-term governor of Alabama, three-time presidential candidate, leading segregationist, and spokesman for southern Democrats.
Wallace was one of four children born to George Corley Wallace, Sr., and Mozell (Smith) Wallace in rural Barbour County, Alabama. George Wallace, Sr., was a slightly successful farmer who suffered terribly from a host of physical ailments, while Mozell Wallace was a homemaker and farm wife. Wallace's father died when Wallace was eighteen years old. In his autobiography, Stand Up for America, Wallace assesses his father: "He was typical of the solid, hardworking, God-fearing people who … inhabit rural Alabama, and whose combination of faith and sinew helped to make the state strong and prosperous." Wallace worked alongside his father in the fields and did odd jobs to earn extra money to help out his family. During his school years Wallace was an athlete, in particular a boxer. He attended the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa from 1937 to 1942, earning a degree in law. During World War II he married Lurleen Burns, on 23 May 1943, and from 1942 to 1945 he served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific; he was involved in the 1945 bombing raids over Japan. He and Lurleen had four children.
Wallace was a tenacious politician who served in a variety of state offices. He was a populist who believed in tough campaigns and going door-to-door, talking with the people and earning their trust slowly through honesty and determination. During the 1940s and 1950s Wallace had a fledgling law practice while he served in the Alabama attorney general's office, as a delegate to Democratic conventions, and as a state judge. Wallace believed in protecting the rights of the common (white) people and in conservative Christianity. He was branded a racist during these years, which in his autobiography he denies, claiming that as a judge he was colorblind and that his growing racist tag derived from his dogged determination to protect states' rights in the face of growing federal power. Wallace ran for governor of Alabama in 1958 on a platform of bringing industry to the state and revitalizing the state's public schools. Although he lost to John Patterson, he immediately began preparing to run again. He was elected governor in 1962.
As governor from 1963 to 1967 Wallace tried to reconstruct the political and social philosophy of the southern confederacy and apply it to modern conditions. His inaugural address was forthright in its devotion to the ideals of a previous century. "From this Cradle of the Confederacy," said Wallace, "this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland…we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us." The tyrants were liberals who sought to spread Communism throughout America, who sought "to persecute the international white minority to the whim of the international colored majority" dominated by the United Nations. Wallace called upon African Americans to join him in working for a social structure based on the assumption of a "separate racial station," preserving "our freedom of race." Segregating the races was the only way to preserve their respective freedom, he argued. Integration represented a tyrannical response to Wallace's own motto for Alabama: "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
This was quite an astonishing speech for the man the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had supported in his 1958 run for governor. Yet Wallace was singular in his independence from the many interest groups that would have liked to put him in their pocket, such as the Ku Klux Klan, a prominent white supremacist group. Wallace's ideals of white supremacy were moderated by his Christian beliefs, his devotion to honor and duty, his respect for the elderly, sick, and helpless. If Wallace was a segregationist, he was at the same time committed to helping African Americans enjoy rights and peace within their own sphere.
Such a sphere was no longer tenable in America, but Wallace refused to see it. Historical events were moving faster than he was willing to accept. In the spring of 1963 demonstrations, riots, and brutality broke out in Birmingham, Alabama, in response to desegregation. The city and the state were unable to control the violence and protect civil rights; President John F. Kennedy called for federal troops. Wallace responded to the federal intervention by filing court papers to repudiate unwanted federal force in the state of Alabama and "to declare the Fourteenth Amendment unconstitutional by virtue of its illegal ratification." Wallace objected to the attempted enrollment of two African-American students at the University of Alabama. A year earlier a similar incident in Mississippi had resulted in death and destruction. Wallace declared that the university would remain segregated even if he was forced to "be present to bar the entrance of any Negro who attempts to enroll." To this and his later attempt in 1963 to resist court-ordered integration of Alabama's public schools, Wallace claimed that his actions had nothing to do with race but rather were in response to the liberal agenda of weakening state government in the face of rising federal government control.
Wallace's foray into national politics began when he ran for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States in 1964. He campaigned for no government interference in state and local education, for allowing business owners to choose their employees, and for giving people the freedom to act within their "sphere." Wallace proclaimed in Stand Up for America that his platform attracted support from those "little people who feared big government in the hands of phony intellectuals and social engineers." He garnered respectable numbers in the Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland primaries before bowing out of the election, proclaiming that he had accomplished his goal of defending and promoting the philosophy of states' rights on the national scene.
Wallace's response to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was consistent with his stated beliefs. Both of these acts, pushed by the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, were aimed at destroying the Jim Crow laws of the South, laws that promoted the old "separate but equal" dogma, set restrictions on African-American suffrage, and attempted to keep African Americans in their place by providing them with the lowest-paying jobs and by restricting their access to good education. Wallace compared the attempts by the Johnson administration to create an America of complete equality with a Communist agenda along the lines of the Soviet Union, where the executive branch of government imposed its will on the people. During one face-to-face meeting Wallace told President Johnson that the Voting Rights Act was a federal imposition on state control, which violated the Tenth Amendment and threatened to destroy federalism as set forth under the Constitution.
Under Alabama law Wallace could not seek a successive term as governor. Wallace avoided this restriction by supporting his wife's campaign for governor. She won easily. Wallace turned his attention to the presidential contest of 1968. But joy for her victory was countered by her health problems. During fall 1967 she began a battle against cancer. As the disease grew worse by the end of 1967, Wallace reconsidered whether or not he should run for president, but Lurleen wouldn't think of his breaking "a promise to the people of Alabama … to bring a message to the American people." When she died in May 1968 Wallace channeled his overwhelming grief into an exhausting presidential campaign.
Wallace in 1968 became the candidate of the American Independence Party for president of the United States; his running mate was Curtis LeMay. Wallace and LeMay promoted a platform based on supporting American troops in Vietnam by aggressively pursuing the war, lowering taxes to bring about reduction of government spending, bringing inflation under control, and ending forced integration of American schools. Wallace appealed to the conservative, white, middle class, who responded with a surprising degree of support. He appealed to some conservative Democrats, particularly because the Democrats were reeling from disaster and disagreement—the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and the uncertainty about whether to continue or abandon Johnson's policy toward Vietnam. Wallace's platform was similar to Republican beliefs, even if he did state them with more force and bluntness. In the end, however, Wallace's message was seriously considered only in his home base. In the 1968 election he garnered forty-six electoral votes, winning five states of the Deep South—Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. He won 13.5 percent of the popular vote.
After the election Wallace toured Vietnam and considered his political options. Having been out of the governorship for a term, he decided to reenter the Alabama gubernatorial race, once again embracing the Democratic Party; he won reelection handily. Wallace remarried in January 1971 to Cornelia Ellis Snively. They were divorced in January 1978. Cornelia was an important resource for her husband during his second term as governor, during his run for the Democratic nomination in 1972, and after he had been struck down and paralyzed by the would-be assassin Arthur Bremer in May 1972 in Laurel, Maryland. Bound to a wheelchair, Wallace rebounded to run again for governor of Alabama. In September 1981 he married Lisa Taylor, but they divorced in January 1987.
Wallace served as governor of Alabama for four terms; he ran for president of the United States three times. During these campaigns he assumed the role of the twentieth-century spokesman for the ideals of the Old South and the confederacy. He was a complicated man who lived in complicated times. He never departed from the traditional beliefs and values of his native Alabama. During the 1960s Wallace represented stability to the millions of southern white-collar and blue-collar whites who saw surrounding them a variety of threats, such as the spread of Communism throughout the world and in America, the increasing power of the federal government, the cultural extremes in America, and the civil rights movement. He died of cardiac and respiratory arrest in Jackson Hospital. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Montgomery.
Wallace's autobiography is Stand Up for America (1976). Biographies include E. Culpepper Clark, The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation's Last Stand at the University of Alabama (1993); Stephan Lesher, George Wallace, American Populist (1994); and Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (1995). An obituary is in the New York Times (15 Sept. 1998).
Russell M. Lawson