Former Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama, who built his political career
on segregation and spent a tormented retirement arguing that he was not a
racist in his heart, died Sunday night at Jackson Hospital in Montgomery.
He was 79 and lived in Montgomery, Ala.
Wallace died of respiratory and cardiac arrest at 9:49 p.m., said Dana
Beyerly, a spokeswoman for Jackson Hospital in Montgomery.
Wallace had been in declining health since being shot in his 1972
presidential campaign by a 21-year-old drifter named Arthur Bremer.
Wallace, a Democrat who was a longtime champion of states’ rights,
dominated his own state for almost a generation. But his wish was to be
remembered as a man who might have been president and whose campaigns for
that office in 1968, 1972 and 1976 established political trends that have
dominated American politics for the last quarter of the 20th century.
He believed that his underdog campaigns made it possible for two other
Southerners, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, to be taken seriously as
presidential candidates. He also argued ceaselessly that his theme of
middle-class empowerment was borrowed by Richard Nixon in 1968 and then
grabbed by another Californian, Ronald Reagan, as the spine of his
triumphant populist conservatism.
In interviews later in his life, Wallace was always less keen to talk
about his other major role in Southern history. After being elected to his
first term as governor in 1962, he became the foil for the huge protests
that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to destroy segregation in
public accommodations in 1963 and to secure voting rights for blacks in
As a young man, Wallace came boiling out of the sun-stricken,
Rebel-haunted reaches of southeast Alabama to win the governorship on his
second try. He became the only Alabamian ever sworn in for four terms as
governor, winning elections in 1962, 1970, 1974 and 1982. He retired at
the end of his last term in January 1987.
So great was his sway over Alabama that by the time he had been in office
only two years, other candidates literally begged him for permission to
put his slogan, “Stand Up for Alabama,” on their billboards. Sens. John
Sparkman and Lister Hill, New Deal veterans who were powers in Washington
and the national Democratic Party, feared to contradict him in public when
he vowed to plunge the state into unrelenting confrontation with the
federal government over the integration of schools, buses, restrooms and
public places in Alabama.
It was a power built entirely on his promise to Alabama’s white voting
majority to continue the historic oppression of its disfranchised and
largely impoverished black citizens. And it was snapshots of the peak
moments of Wallace’s campaign of racial oppression that burned him into
the nation’s consciousness as the Deep South’s most forceful political
brawler since Huey Long of Louisiana.
First, on Jan. 14, 1963, there was his inaugural address, written by a
known Ku Klux Klansman, Asa Carter. In it, Wallace promised to protect the
state’s “Anglo-Saxon people” from “communistic amalgamation” with blacks
and ended with the line that would haunt his later efforts to enter the
Democratic mainstream: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation
Wallace’s next signature moment came on June 11, 1963, when he mounted his
“stand in the schoolhouse door” to block two black students, Vivian Malone
and James Hood, from enrolling at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Within days, it was convincingly reported that Wallace, fearing jail for
defying a federal court order, had privately promised President John
Kennedy that he would step aside if first allowed to make a defiant
Wallace’s in-state critics denounced him for a “charade” that embarrassed
the state. But the cold splash of reality did not dampen his plans to use
Alabama as a stepping stone to the national political arena and to the
anti-Big-government speeches by which he obsessively longed to be
remembered by history.
Wallace talked of running for president in 1964 as a neo-Dixiecrat
candidate. But he backed off when the Republican nominee, Sen. Barry
Goldwater of Arizona, came out against the bill that later became the 1964
Civil Rights Act. Goldwater’s move undercut Wallace’s trademark assertion
that “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference” between the two main
parties on race.
After the election, Wallace regretted his timidity because he thought
Goldwater had run a campaign of comical ineptitude, and when 1968 came
around, he invented a party, drafted the eccentric retired Air Force
general Curtis LeMay as his running mate, and began draining away the
lunch-pail vote from Nixon.
One reason for his success was that Wallace always campaigned “with the
tense urgency of a squirrel,” in the memorable description of one
biographer, Marshall Frady. Another reason was that his message worked
among disaffected whites everywhere, not just in the South.
Wallace’s political radar had picked up signals that Rust Belt workers and
urban white ethnic Americans from Boston to Baltimore felt grumpy about
black students in their neighborhood schools and black competitors in the
workplace. He cleaned up his language, but he used an expurgated list of
demons — liberals, Communists, the Eastern press, federal judges,
“pointy-headed intellectuals” — to tap out in code words an updated
version of his fire-hardened message from the Heart of Dixie. It was race
This blend of color prejudice and economic grievance appealed to enough
voters to win him more than 13 percent of the popular vote and five states
in the 1968 presidential election.
In the 1972 race, he was running even stronger in the Democratic
presidential primaries. He rattled the party’s establishment with a
second-place finish in Wisconsin and a rapid ascent in the polls. He also
won primaries in Maryland and Michigan on May 16, but got the news in a
hospital bed, having been shot and paralyzed on the day before the
The injury from Bremer’s bullet became a “thorn in my flesh,” Wallace
later said, and the truncated campaign became a thorn in his psyche. He
died believing that had he not been shot, popular appeal would have forced
the Democratic Party to put him on the ticket in 1972 to keep Nixon from
sweeping the Sun Belt and blue-collar enclaves in the Middle West and
Wallace ran again in 1976. From the start, aides noticed that the applause
dwindled once crowds saw his shiny wheelchair. Wallace noticed it, too,
and in private he disputed friends who reminded him that Franklin
Roosevelt had won despite crutches and wheelchair.
“Yeah,” Wallace told his confidant Oscar Adams, “they elected Roosevelt,
but they didn’t watch him on television every night getting hauled on a
plane like he was half-dead.”
The death of Wallace’s presidential dream came just before the Illinois
primary, when he dropped out and endorsed a more modern Southerner with no
segregationist baggage, Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia.
Wallace wanted to be remembered for his shining moment in 1972 and the
Main Street themes he brought to prominence. Dan Carter, a professor of
history at Emory University and author of the most detailed Wallace
biography, “The Politics of Rage,” supports the claim.
“It is difficult to conceive of what American politics of the 1960s, 70s
and 80s would be like without George Wallace,” Carter said in a 1994
interview. “I don’t think there’s a single issue that Nixon and Reagan
talk of in terms of social issues that he doesn’t get to first.”
In this view, Wallace’s presidential campaigns prefigured, in an
especially abrasive way, a large portion of the country’s politics of
later years. Wallace was the first major political figure in his
generation to exploit the antipathy toward Washington that went on to be a
prime force in politics from coast to coast.
He was also surely the first in his generation to galvanize the white,
working-class voters later labeled as Reagan Democrats. And he was the
first nationally known politician of that generation to put such raucous
emphasis on race, crime, welfare and other issues that still loom large,
if less crudely, on the political landscape.
After he retired as governor, Wallace used interviews to push relentlessly
at the theme that he was the real inventor of Reaganism. Starting in 1979,
he also undertook a campaign of apology and revisionist explanation
intended to erase the word “racist” from his epitaph.
He argued that his early devotion to segregation was based on his reading
of the Constitution and the Bible and was misinterpreted as a racist
hatred of black people.
“I made a mistake in the sense that I should have clarified my position
more,” he said in his last term as governor. “I was never saying anything
that reflected upon black people, and I’m very sorry it was taken that
That Wallace died haunted by race is appropriate to his life story — one
of Faulknerian perversity embodying the old themes of guilt and a steady,
if clumsy, Snopsian aspiration.
George Corley Wallace Jr. was born on Aug. 25, 1919, in Clio, Ala., a
cotton town in Barbour County, where mule-drawn wagons were as common as
cars on the unpaved main street. His father was the wastrel son of a
beloved local doctor. His mother, Mozelle Smith Wallace, had survived
abandonment by her mother and a depressing girlhood in an Episcopal
orphanage at Mobile.
Like his father, George Jr. was quick with his fists and drawn to
politics. Calling himself the “Barbour Bantam,” he won two Golden Gloves
titles while in high school. As a 15-year-old legislative page at the
Capitol in Montgomery, he stood on the gold star marking the spot where
Jefferson Davis was sworn as president of the Confederacy and where, by
tradition, Alabama governors have taken the oath of office ever since. It
was the seminal moment of his youth. Man and boy, George Wallace revered
that spot, so much so that as governor he ordered state troopers to
encircle it so that a visitor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, could not
put a desecrating Yankee foot atop it.
It was in 1937, on the oak-shaded Tuscaloosa campus of the University of
Alabama, that George Wallace began to define what he would become
politically. He arrived in the same shiny suit he had worn as a page in
Montgomery, but Tuscaloosa was a congenial place for poor, ambitious
country boys. And by tradition, it was a virtual boot camp for future
governors and senators. Young Wallace won election as president of the
freshman class. He never won another student office, but his campaign to
beat the fraternity machine with a coalition of independents and
out-of-state students whetted his permanent taste for underdog politics.
The other leitmotifs of his Alabama career — cronyism and betrayal —
emerged at the university. He acquired the hangers-on who staffed his
later efforts, and he made an unlikely, but ill-fated friendship with
Frank Johnson, a handsome law student from Winston County, a Unionist
stronghold in northern Alabama that seceded from Alabama when Alabama left
the Union. Johnson was a Republican, Wallace an ardent New Deal Democrat.
Johnson joked about someday being a federal judge and Wallace about being
governor. But the big wheels on campus tended to dismiss Wallace’s
ambitions as comical.
For in those days, too, Wallace impressed people by his frenetic energy
and tireless pugnacity rather than by any inherent attractiveness. He
waited tables and drove taxis and slid through law school, cramming from
borrowed books. Frank Johnson’s wife, Ruth, was worried by Wallace’s habit
of chasing innocent high school girls, although she thought him more
interested in the adoration than sexual conquest. Finally in 1943, at the
age of 23, he decided to marry one of his naive admirers, a 16-year-old
dime store clerk named Lurleen Burns.
It was wartime and Mrs. Wallace and their baby daughter, Bobbi Joe, born
in 1944, followed wherever Wallace’s flight training in the Army Air
Forces took him. He shipped to the Mariana Islands as a flight engineer in
the spring of 1945, assigned to fly bombing missions over Japan.
The biographer Dan Carter found fellow crew members who remembered
Wallace’s barracks lectures defending segregation in Barbour County. “I
don’t hate them,” Wallace was reported to have said. “The colored are fine
in their place. But they’re just like children, and it’s not something
that’s going to change. It’s written in stone.”
Wallace had been through nine combat missions by the time the war ended.
He was discharged with a 10 percent disability for combat-induced
“psychoneurosis,” diagnosed after he refused orders to fly dangerous
training missions when his unit returned to California after the Japanese
surrender. Years later, Sen. Wayne Morse, D-Ore., disclosed Wallace’s
wartime psychiatric history. Wallace responded that unlike his liberal
attacker, he could prove that he was 90 percent sane.
After the war, Wallace began climbing up the political ladder with
remarkable speed. Using his Barbour County connections, he was named an
assistant to Alabama’s attorney general in 1946. The next year he won
election to the Alabama legislature. He allied himself with the racially
moderate populist Gov. James Folsom and prevailed on Folsom to appoint him
as a trustee of all-black Tuskegee Institute.
As a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1948, Wallace
refused to join the walkout by segregationist “Dixiecrats,” a move that
placed him firmly in the progressive, racially moderate wing of a state
Democratic Party that still had “White Supremacy” emblazoned on its ballot
After this blooding in state and national politics, Wallace settled in as
an elected district judge in his home county, serving from 1953 to 1958
and all the while laying plans to run for governor in 1958.
It was in the preparation of that race and its aftermath that Wallace
committed two betrayals — one personal and one political — that
blemished his reputation for life, but also gave him a generationlong
stranglehold on Alabama politics.
The first came after 1958, when Wallace’s surprisingly strong dark-horse
candidacy failed. He had followed the tolerant racial line laid down by
Folsom and lost to John Patterson, whose devotion to massive resistance to
court-ordered integration won him the following of the Ku Klux Klan. There
were only about 5,000 Klan members, Patterson later recalled, but they
helped him paper the state with campaign literature.
Later, Wallace, in a quotation whose authenticity he long disputed, was
recorded as saying that no one “will ever out out-nigger me again.”
Even if not literally true, the remark defined the strategy Wallace would
use to ride to power. He started the very next year when his law school
friend Frank Johnson, now a federal judge with a strong civil rights
record, ordered Wallace’s court to surrender voter-registration records to
the United States Civil Rights Commission. Wallace denounced Johnson in
public as a federal dictator, but conspired secretly to avoid being jailed
on federal contempt charges by having a local grand jury surrender the
records on his behalf.
Johnson ruled that Wallace had used “devious means,” but had nonetheless
obeyed the federal court order. Never one to be embarrassed by the facts,
Wallace labeled Johnson a “carpet-bagging, scalawagging liar” who wanted
to mount “a second Sherman’s March to the Sea.”
Wallace had lost a friend but gained a nickname, “The Fighting Judge,”
that would help make him governor in 1962 as an all-out segregationist
with Klan backing. As Johnson later told the Alabama writer Frank Sikora,
Wallace had also established the tactical blueprint of his career:
“misleading the people of Alabama for the purpose of pursuing his
Wallace, of course, did not see it that way. He described himself as
devoted to the economic development of his state and to advancing the
causes of limited government and middle-class values in national politics.
The reality was both uglier and more complicated.
In his four terms as governor, Wallace saw an era of unparalleled
corruption that operated through a crony system centered on his brother
Gerald, a lawyer who died in 1993. With the governor’s approval, Gerald
Wallace and his close associate, Oscar Harper, went into business selling
the state office supplies, printing, vending machines and building leases.
Gerald Wallace and Harper established an asphalt company with $1,000 in
capital. In a year and half, the infant company garnered more than a
million dollars in state contracts.
These unblushing accounts come not from political opponents, but from
Harper’s 1988 memoir, “Me ‘n’ George,” regarded as one of the best guides
to the inside dealing in Alabama’s capital during the Wallace years.
“Most people have got the wrong idea about how I made my money,” Harper
wrote. “They think me and Gerald are crooks.” Then he added: “That ain’t
true. It’s just that good deals kept popping up and I never was one to
turn a good deal down.”
As this comment suggests, Wallace’s first term was rowdy, even by the
standards of a region that had produced Gov. Eugene Talmadge of Georgia,
known as “The Wild Man from Sugar Creek.”
It is one of the paradoxes of Southern history that Alabama’s “Fighting
Judge,” by trying to revive the antebellum doctrine of states’ rights,
instead enabled the civil rights movement to reach its high-water mark.
The Birmingham demonstrations in 1963 led to the passage of the 1964 Civil
Rights Act. Two years later the Selma march led to the passage of the 1965
Voting Rights Act.
Despite these triumphs, it was a dangerous time for blacks and whites who
supported the civil rights movement. During the Wallace years, at least 10
people died in racially motivated killings in Alabama. Wallace and his
flamboyantly inept and drug-addled public safety director, Al Lingo,
responded mainly by disrupting the federal investigations into crimes like
the bombing that killed four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist
Church on Sept. 15, 1963.
Leaders of Alabama’s business and educational establishment, always
sensitive to the state’s image, came to regard Wallace as an
embarrassment. The governor himself was hurt and stunned when students at
his beloved alma mater greeted him with chants of “We’re No. 50,” a
reference to the cash-starved university’s academic standing.
But George Wallace was a creature of the storm who always had wind beneath
his wings, and that wind was the adoration of the white farmers and
factory workers and rural courthouse bosses who counted the votes and
doled out patronage.
They loved it when Wallace waved his cigar, flooded his food with ketchup
and said that the guy pumping gas at an Alabama crossroads knew more about
Communism than the State Department.
When a surprisingly strong anti-Wallace faction in the legislature refused
to alter the state Constitution to allow him a second term, Wallace put
his ailing wife Lurleen on the ballot in 1966. She won easily in a
heart-rending campaign that demonstrated the scope of his ambition. Only a
few weeks before her husband announced her candidacy, Mrs. Wallace had
surgery and radiation treatment for the aggressive intestinal cancer that
would kill her in 1968.
Political writers predicted that Alabamians would punish Wallace for his
cynical use of a sick woman. But he was only shifting gears. He reclaimed
the governorship in 1970 with the most flagrantly racist campaign of his
career, warning that his progressive opponent, Albert Brewer, was using a
black “block vote” to install a regime of federal oppression. With
Wallace’s clear approval, the Klan circulated fliers falsely accusing the
clean-living Brewer and his wife and daughters of sexual perversions and
It was a historic election for Alabama in two ways. First, Alabama was
resisting the epochal progressive wave that swept the region in 1970 and
installed New South governors like Jimmy Carter in Georgia and Reubin
Askew in Florida. Secondly, Wallace openly committing himself to the
presidential race track.
By Wallace’s reckoning, his appeal to blue-collar voters outside the South
had “shaken the eyeteeth” of both major parties in 1968. Indeed, President
Nixon so feared Wallace’s disruptive potential in 1972 that he supplied
$400,000 to Wallace’s opponent in the 1970 campaign for governor. But
Wallace won with his racist attacks and his invitation to Alabamians to
“send them a message” by launching him toward the 1972 presidential race.
For a few months, Wallace was the hottest thing going. Gone were the
pomaded hair and the bargain-store threads. His stylish new wife, Cornelia
Ellis Snively, a niece of former Governor Folsom, decked out Wallace in
modish, wide-lapel suits and taught him to use a blow dryer. Wallace
talked less about race because he could afford to. His attacks on school
busing let conservative whites know where he stood.
As Wallace moved toward victory in the Florida primary, Nixon himself made
an anti-busing speech that was regarded as a tribute to Wallace’s growing
appeal. Wallace finished second behind Sen. George McGovern in the
Wisconsin primary and second to former Vice President Hubert Humphrey in
Indiana. Having established himself as a force in the Democratic Party, he
was topping the polls in the primary campaigns of Maryland and Michigan.
But on the afternoon of May 15, at an unnecessary campaign rally in
Laurel, Md., Wallace overruled the Secret Service and moved into a crowd
for a final round of handshaking. “Hey, George, let me shake hands with
you,” shouted Arthur Bremer. Frustrated in an earlier ambition to kill
Nixon, Bremer, had been stalking the governor for weeks. From a range of
three feet, the gunman shot Wallace three times, severing his spine and
paralyzing him for life. Bremer is now in prison in Maryland, serving the
63-year sentence given him in June 1972.
Although his presidential hopes ended, Wallace won two more terms as
governor by appealing to white loyalty and catering to the thousands of
new black voters whose franchise he had opposed. But Wallace now behaved
more like a pensioner than a chief executive. The constant pain from his
wound — “the thorn in my flesh” — limited his concentration and resulted
in a dependence on methadone and other painkillers. He became
pathologically jealous of his wife, Cornelia, who after a messy divorce in
1978 encountered her own problems with substance abuse.
Wallace’s hope to found a dynasty foundered when his son, George Jr.,
proved a querulous campaigner who could not progress beyond minor state
offices. Wallace married again to a failed country singer named Lisa
Taylor. That marriage, too, generated sour publicity before they divorced
He is survived by four children from his first marriage: his son, of
Montgomery; three daughters, Lee Dye and Bobbi Jo Parsons, both of
Birmingham, and Peggy Kennedy of Montgomery; two brothers, Gerald, of
Montgomery, and Jack, of Eufaula, Ala.; and several grandchildren.
Wallace won his last election as governor in 1982, but it was historical
revision, rather than running the state, that occupied his last years.
Starting in 1977, he began giving interviews in which he said that
political philosophy rather than racism was the motor of his career.
In a typical interview, he said: “The New York Times, the Eastern
establishment newspapers never did understand that segregation wasn’t
about hate. I didn’t hate anybody. I don’t hate the man who shot me. When
I was young, I used to swim and play with blacks all the time. You find
more hate in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., than in all the
Southern states put together.”
As part of his rehabilitation effort, Wallace sought meetings with civil
rights figures like the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and
Rep. John Lewis, whose beating on “Bloody Sunday” at Selma galvanzied the
voting-rights crusade. Wallace made a well-publicized appearance at King’s
old church in Montgomery. Sometimes he even managed to use the magic words
After Wallace left office in 1987, Alabamians continued to support him
through a figurehead position at Troy State University. By the time he
died, Republicans had taken over the governorship, and Wallace’s main
legacy, a statewide system of trade schools, junior colleges, and small
four-year institutions, was regarded as a monument to educational waste
and redundancy that a poor state could ill afford.
One of his last public appearances was in the Spike Lee documentary “Four
Little Girls,” which tells the story of the 16th Street Baptist Church
bombing. In his interview, Wallace insists that his best friend in the
world was a black orderly. The obviously uncomfortable orderly keeps
trying to walk out of the frame only to be tugged back by Wallace. In
public showings, that passage of the film usually drew laughter.
So ended the public career that saw Wallace move from being the most
feared politician of his era to a pitiable relic. It is a career whose
moral arc seemed, in retrospect, utterly predictable and utterly of a
piece with the Faulknerian idea of racism’s ineradicable curse. At the
height of his powers, George Wallace denied any moral responsibility for
the violent acts that racked his state. And in his Bible-haunted state,
many insisted that a terrible judgment had been visited upon him.
Brandt Ayers, the liberal editor of The Star newspaper in Anniston, put it
this way: “The Governor we Alabamians knew was a man of primal passion:
sincere champion of the working class, cynical manipulator of their
resentments, a sorcerer summoning the beast in our nature, a man of deep
insecurities, tenderness, and finally, humility.”
He added, “When he came to my office in 1974 campaigning for governor, I
told him: ‘George, you always claimed to stand up for the little man, but
everybody knows that the real underdog is the black man. We stood up for
him. You didn’t. Why?”‘ He did not answer. He just looked down at his legs
for what seemed a very long time.”