George C. Wallace of Alabama, who built his political careeron segregation and spent a tormented retirement arguing that he was not aracist 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 DanaBeyerly, a spokeswoman for Jackson Hospital in Montgomery.Wallace had been in declining health since being shot in his 1972presidential 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 beremembered as a man who might have been president and whose campaigns forthat office in 1968, 1972 and 1976 established political trends that havedominated American politics for the last quarter of the 20th century.He believed that his underdog campaigns made it possible for two otherSoutherners, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, to be taken seriously aspresidential candidates. He also argued ceaselessly that his theme ofmiddle-class empowerment was borrowed by Richard Nixon in 1968 and thengrabbed by another Californian, Ronald Reagan, as the spine of histriumphant populist conservatism.In interviews later in his life, Wallace was always less keen to talkabout his other major role in Southern history. After being elected to hisfirst term as governor in 1962, he became the foil for the huge proteststhat the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to destroy segregation inpublic accommodations in 1963 and to secure voting rights for blacks in1965.
As a young man, Wallace came boiling out of the sun-stricken,Rebel-haunted reaches of southeast Alabama to win the governorship on hissecond try. He became the only Alabamian ever sworn in for four terms asgovernor, winning elections in 1962, 1970, 1974 and 1982. He retired atthe end of his last term in January 1987.So great was his sway over Alabama that by the time he had been in officeonly two years, other candidates literally begged him for permission toput his slogan, “Stand Up for Alabama,” on their billboards. Sens. JohnSparkman and Lister Hill, New Deal veterans who were powers in Washingtonand the national Democratic Party, feared to contradict him in public whenhe vowed to plunge the state into unrelenting confrontation with thefederal government over the integration of schools, buses, restrooms andpublic places in Alabama.
It was a power built entirely on his promise to Alabama’s white votingmajority to continue the historic oppression of its disfranchised andlargely impoverished black citizens. And it was snapshots of the peakmoments of Wallace’s campaign of racial oppression that burned him intothe nation’s consciousness as the Deep South’s most forceful politicalbrawler since Huey Long of Louisiana.First, on Jan.
14, 1963, there was his inaugural address, written by aknown Ku Klux Klansman, Asa Carter. In it, Wallace promised to protect thestate’s “Anglo-Saxon people” from “communistic amalgamation” with blacksand ended with the line that would haunt his later efforts to enter theDemocratic mainstream: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregationforever.”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 Maloneand James Hood, from enrolling at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Within days, it was convincingly reported that Wallace, fearing jail fordefying a federal court order, had privately promised President JohnKennedy that he would step aside if first allowed to make a defiantspeech.Wallace’s in-state critics denounced him for a “charade” that embarrassedthe state. But the cold splash of reality did not dampen his plans to useAlabama as a stepping stone to the national political arena and to theanti-Big-government speeches by which he obsessively longed to beremembered by history.
Wallace talked of running for president in 1964 as a neo-Dixiecratcandidate. But he backed off when the Republican nominee, Sen. BarryGoldwater of Arizona, came out against the bill that later became the 1964Civil Rights Act. Goldwater’s move undercut Wallace’s trademark assertionthat “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference” between the two mainparties on race.After the election, Wallace regretted his timidity because he thoughtGoldwater had run a campaign of comical ineptitude, and when 1968 camearound, he invented a party, drafted the eccentric retired Air Forcegeneral Curtis LeMay as his running mate, and began draining away thelunch-pail vote from Nixon.
One reason for his success was that Wallace always campaigned “with thetense urgency of a squirrel,” in the memorable description of onebiographer, Marshall Frady. Another reason was that his message workedamong disaffected whites everywhere, not just in the South.Wallace’s political radar had picked up signals that Rust Belt workers andurban white ethnic Americans from Boston to Baltimore felt grumpy aboutblack students in their neighborhood schools and black competitors in theworkplace. He cleaned up his language, but he used an expurgated list ofdemons — liberals, Communists, the Eastern press, federal judges,”pointy-headed intellectuals” — to tap out in code words an updatedversion of his fire-hardened message from the Heart of Dixie. It was raceand rage.
This blend of color prejudice and economic grievance appealed to enoughvoters to win him more than 13 percent of the popular vote and five statesin the 1968 presidential election.In the 1972 race, he was running even stronger in the Democraticpresidential primaries. He rattled the party’s establishment with asecond-place finish in Wisconsin and a rapid ascent in the polls. He alsowon primaries in Maryland and Michigan on May 16, but got the news in ahospital bed, having been shot and paralyzed on the day before theballoting.The injury from Bremer’s bullet became a “thorn in my flesh,” Wallacelater said, and the truncated campaign became a thorn in his psyche. Hedied believing that had he not been shot, popular appeal would have forcedthe Democratic Party to put him on the ticket in 1972 to keep Nixon fromsweeping the Sun Belt and blue-collar enclaves in the Middle West andNortheast.Wallace ran again in 1976.
From the start, aides noticed that the applausedwindled once crowds saw his shiny wheelchair. Wallace noticed it, too,and in private he disputed friends who reminded him that FranklinRoosevelt 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 aplane like he was half-dead.”The death of Wallace’s presidential dream came just before the Illinoisprimary, when he dropped out and endorsed a more modern Southerner with nosegregationist baggage, Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia.Wallace wanted to be remembered for his shining moment in 1972 and theMain Street themes he brought to prominence. Dan Carter, a professor ofhistory at Emory University and author of the most detailed Wallacebiography, “The Politics of Rage,” supports the claim.”It is difficult to conceive of what American politics of the 1960s, 70sand 80s would be like without George Wallace,” Carter said in a 1994interview.
“I don’t think there’s a single issue that Nixon and Reagantalk of in terms of social issues that he doesn’t get to first.”In this view, Wallace’s presidential campaigns prefigured, in anespecially abrasive way, a large portion of the country’s politics oflater years. Wallace was the first major political figure in hisgeneration to exploit the antipathy toward Washington that went on to be aprime 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 thefirst nationally known politician of that generation to put such raucousemphasis 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 relentlesslyat the theme that he was the real inventor of Reaganism. Starting in 1979,he also undertook a campaign of apology and revisionist explanationintended to erase the word “racist” from his epitaph.
He argued that his early devotion to segregation was based on his readingof the Constitution and the Bible and was misinterpreted as a racisthatred of black people.”I made a mistake in the sense that I should have clarified my positionmore,” he said in his last term as governor. “I was never saying anythingthat reflected upon black people, and I’m very sorry it was taken thatway.”That Wallace died haunted by race is appropriate to his life story — oneof 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.
, acotton town in Barbour County, where mule-drawn wagons were as common ascars on the unpaved main street. His father was the wastrel son of abeloved local doctor. His mother, Mozelle Smith Wallace, had survivedabandonment by her mother and a depressing girlhood in an Episcopalorphanage at Mobile.Like his father, George Jr. was quick with his fists and drawn topolitics.
Calling himself the “Barbour Bantam,” he won two Golden Glovestitles while in high school. As a 15-year-old legislative page at theCapitol in Montgomery, he stood on the gold star marking the spot whereJefferson Davis was sworn as president of the Confederacy and where, bytradition, Alabama governors have taken the oath of office ever since. Itwas the seminal moment of his youth. Man and boy, George Wallace reveredthat spot, so much so that as governor he ordered state troopers toencircle it so that a visitor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, could notput a desecrating Yankee foot atop it.It was in 1937, on the oak-shaded Tuscaloosa campus of the University ofAlabama, that George Wallace began to define what he would becomepolitically. He arrived in the same shiny suit he had worn as a page inMontgomery, but Tuscaloosa was a congenial place for poor, ambitiouscountry boys. And by tradition, it was a virtual boot camp for futuregovernors and senators. Young Wallace won election as president of thefreshman class.
He never won another student office, but his campaign tobeat the fraternity machine with a coalition of independents andout-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 hislater efforts, and he made an unlikely, but ill-fated friendship withFrank Johnson, a handsome law student from Winston County, a Unioniststronghold in northern Alabama that seceded from Alabama when Alabama leftthe Union. Johnson was a Republican, Wallace an ardent New Deal Democrat.Johnson joked about someday being a federal judge and Wallace about beinggovernor. But the big wheels on campus tended to dismiss Wallace’sambitions as comical.For in those days, too, Wallace impressed people by his frenetic energyand tireless pugnacity rather than by any inherent attractiveness.
Hewaited tables and drove taxis and slid through law school, cramming fromborrowed books. Frank Johnson’s wife, Ruth, was worried by Wallace’s habitof chasing innocent high school girls, although she thought him moreinterested in the adoration than sexual conquest. Finally in 1943, at theage of 23, he decided to marry one of his naive admirers, a 16-year-olddime store clerk named Lurleen Burns.It was wartime and Mrs. Wallace and their baby daughter, Bobbi Joe, bornin 1944, followed wherever Wallace’s flight training in the Army AirForces took him. He shipped to the Mariana Islands as a flight engineer inthe spring of 1945, assigned to fly bombing missions over Japan.The biographer Dan Carter found fellow crew members who rememberedWallace’s barracks lectures defending segregation in Barbour County.
“Idon’t hate them,” Wallace was reported to have said. “The colored are finein their place. But they’re just like children, and it’s not somethingthat’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 dangeroustraining missions when his unit returned to California after the Japanesesurrender.
Years later, Sen. Wayne Morse, D-Ore., disclosed Wallace’swartime psychiatric history. Wallace responded that unlike his liberalattacker, he could prove that he was 90 percent sane.After the war, Wallace began climbing up the political ladder withremarkable speed. Using his Barbour County connections, he was named anassistant to Alabama’s attorney general in 1946. The next year he wonelection to the Alabama legislature.
He allied himself with the raciallymoderate populist Gov. James Folsom and prevailed on Folsom to appoint himas a trustee of all-black Tuskegee Institute.As a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1948, Wallacerefused to join the walkout by segregationist “Dixiecrats,” a move thatplaced him firmly in the progressive, racially moderate wing of a stateDemocratic Party that still had “White Supremacy” emblazoned on its ballotemblem.After this blooding in state and national politics, Wallace settled in asan elected district judge in his home county, serving from 1953 to 1958and all the while laying plans to run for governor in 1958.It was in the preparation of that race and its aftermath that Wallacecommitted two betrayals — one personal and one political — thatblemished his reputation for life, but also gave him a generationlongstranglehold on Alabama politics.The first came after 1958, when Wallace’s surprisingly strong dark-horsecandidacy failed. He had followed the tolerant racial line laid down byFolsom and lost to John Patterson, whose devotion to massive resistance tocourt-ordered integration won him the following of the Ku Klux Klan. Therewere only about 5,000 Klan members, Patterson later recalled, but theyhelped him paper the state with campaign literature.
Later, Wallace, in a quotation whose authenticity he long disputed, wasrecorded as saying that no one “will ever out out-nigger me again.”Even if not literally true, the remark defined the strategy Wallace woulduse to ride to power. He started the very next year when his law schoolfriend Frank Johnson, now a federal judge with a strong civil rightsrecord, ordered Wallace’s court to surrender voter-registration records tothe United States Civil Rights Commission. Wallace denounced Johnson inpublic as a federal dictator, but conspired secretly to avoid being jailedon federal contempt charges by having a local grand jury surrender therecords on his behalf.Johnson ruled that Wallace had used “devious means,” but had nonethelessobeyed the federal court order. Never one to be embarrassed by the facts,Wallace labeled Johnson a “carpet-bagging, scalawagging liar” who wantedto 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 segregationistwith 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 hispolitical career.”Wallace, of course, did not see it that way.
He described himself asdevoted to the economic development of his state and to advancing thecauses 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 unparalleledcorruption that operated through a crony system centered on his brotherGerald, a lawyer who died in 1993. With the governor’s approval, GeraldWallace and his close associate, Oscar Harper, went into business sellingthe state office supplies, printing, vending machines and building leases.Gerald Wallace and Harper established an asphalt company with $1,000 incapital.
In a year and half, the infant company garnered more than amillion dollars in state contracts.These unblushing accounts come not from political opponents, but fromHarper’s 1988 memoir, “Me ‘n’ George,” regarded as one of the best guidesto the inside dealing in Alabama’s capital during the Wallace years.”Most people have got the wrong idea about how I made my money,” Harperwrote.
“They think me and Gerald are crooks.” Then he added: “That ain’ttrue. It’s just that good deals kept popping up and I never was one toturn a good deal down.”As this comment suggests, Wallace’s first term was rowdy, even by thestandards 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 “FightingJudge,” 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 CivilRights Act.
Two years later the Selma march led to the passage of the 1965Voting Rights Act.Despite these triumphs, it was a dangerous time for blacks and whites whosupported the civil rights movement. During the Wallace years, at least 10people died in racially motivated killings in Alabama. Wallace and hisflamboyantly inept and drug-addled public safety director, Al Lingo,responded mainly by disrupting the federal investigations into crimes likethe bombing that killed four little girls at the 16th Street BaptistChurch on Sept. 15, 1963.
Leaders of Alabama’s business and educational establishment, alwayssensitive to the state’s image, came to regard Wallace as anembarrassment. The governor himself was hurt and stunned when students athis beloved alma mater greeted him with chants of “We’re No. 50,” areference to the cash-starved university’s academic standing.But George Wallace was a creature of the storm who always had wind beneathhis wings, and that wind was the adoration of the white farmers andfactory workers and rural courthouse bosses who counted the votes anddoled out patronage.They loved it when Wallace waved his cigar, flooded his food with ketchupand said that the guy pumping gas at an Alabama crossroads knew more aboutCommunism than the State Department.When a surprisingly strong anti-Wallace faction in the legislature refusedto alter the state Constitution to allow him a second term, Wallace puthis ailing wife Lurleen on the ballot in 1966. She won easily in aheart-rending campaign that demonstrated the scope of his ambition.
Only afew weeks before her husband announced her candidacy, Mrs. Wallace hadsurgery and radiation treatment for the aggressive intestinal cancer thatwould kill her in 1968.Political writers predicted that Alabamians would punish Wallace for hiscynical use of a sick woman. But he was only shifting gears.
He reclaimedthe governorship in 1970 with the most flagrantly racist campaign of hiscareer, warning that his progressive opponent, Albert Brewer, was using ablack “block vote” to install a regime of federal oppression. WithWallace’s clear approval, the Klan circulated fliers falsely accusing theclean-living Brewer and his wife and daughters of sexual perversions andmiscegenation.It was a historic election for Alabama in two ways. First, Alabama wasresisting the epochal progressive wave that swept the region in 1970 andinstalled New South governors like Jimmy Carter in Georgia and ReubinAskew in Florida. Secondly, Wallace openly committing himself to thepresidential race track.By Wallace’s reckoning, his appeal to blue-collar voters outside the Southhad “shaken the eyeteeth” of both major parties in 1968.
Indeed, PresidentNixon so feared Wallace’s disruptive potential in 1972 that he supplied$400,000 to Wallace’s opponent in the 1970 campaign for governor. ButWallace 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 thepomaded hair and the bargain-store threads. His stylish new wife, CorneliaEllis Snively, a niece of former Governor Folsom, decked out Wallace inmodish, wide-lapel suits and taught him to use a blow dryer. Wallacetalked less about race because he could afford to. His attacks on schoolbusing let conservative whites know where he stood.As Wallace moved toward victory in the Florida primary, Nixon himself madean anti-busing speech that was regarded as a tribute to Wallace’s growingappeal.
Wallace finished second behind Sen. George McGovern in theWisconsin primary and second to former Vice President Hubert Humphrey inIndiana. Having established himself as a force in the Democratic Party, hewas topping the polls in the primary campaigns of Maryland and Michigan.But on the afternoon of May 15, at an unnecessary campaign rally inLaurel, Md., Wallace overruled the Secret Service and moved into a crowdfor a final round of handshaking.
“Hey, George, let me shake hands withyou,” shouted Arthur Bremer. Frustrated in an earlier ambition to killNixon, Bremer, had been stalking the governor for weeks. From a range ofthree feet, the gunman shot Wallace three times, severing his spine andparalyzing him for life. Bremer is now in prison in Maryland, serving the63-year sentence given him in June 1972.Although his presidential hopes ended, Wallace won two more terms asgovernor by appealing to white loyalty and catering to the thousands ofnew black voters whose franchise he had opposed.
But Wallace now behavedmore like a pensioner than a chief executive. The constant pain from hiswound — “the thorn in my flesh” — limited his concentration and resultedin a dependence on methadone and other painkillers. He becamepathologically jealous of his wife, Cornelia, who after a messy divorce in1978 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 stateoffices. Wallace married again to a failed country singer named LisaTaylor. That marriage, too, generated sour publicity before they divorcedin 1987.He is survived by four children from his first marriage: his son, ofMontgomery; three daughters, Lee Dye and Bobbi Jo Parsons, both ofBirmingham, and Peggy Kennedy of Montgomery; two brothers, Gerald, ofMontgomery, and Jack, of Eufaula, Ala.
; and several grandchildren.Wallace won his last election as governor in 1982, but it was historicalrevision, rather than running the state, that occupied his last years.Starting in 1977, he began giving interviews in which he said thatpolitical philosophy rather than racism was the motor of his career.In a typical interview, he said: “The New York Times, the Easternestablishment newspapers never did understand that segregation wasn’tabout hate. I didn’t hate anybody. I don’t hate the man who shot me. WhenI was young, I used to swim and play with blacks all the time.
You findmore hate in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., than in all theSouthern states put together.”As part of his rehabilitation effort, Wallace sought meetings with civilrights figures like the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the Rev. Jesse Jackson andRep. John Lewis, whose beating on “Bloody Sunday” at Selma galvanzied thevoting-rights crusade. Wallace made a well-publicized appearance at King’sold church in Montgomery.
Sometimes he even managed to use the magic words”I’m sorry.”After Wallace left office in 1987, Alabamians continued to support himthrough a figurehead position at Troy State University. By the time hedied, Republicans had taken over the governorship, and Wallace’s mainlegacy, a statewide system of trade schools, junior colleges, and smallfour-year institutions, was regarded as a monument to educational wasteand redundancy that a poor state could ill afford.One of his last public appearances was in the Spike Lee documentary “FourLittle Girls,” which tells the story of the 16th Street Baptist Churchbombing. In his interview, Wallace insists that his best friend in theworld was a black orderly.
The obviously uncomfortable orderly keepstrying to walk out of the frame only to be tugged back by Wallace. Inpublic showings, that passage of the film usually drew laughter.So ended the public career that saw Wallace move from being the mostfeared politician of his era to a pitiable relic.
It is a career whosemoral arc seemed, in retrospect, utterly predictable and utterly of apiece with the Faulknerian idea of racism’s ineradicable curse. At theheight of his powers, George Wallace denied any moral responsibility forthe 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 itthis way: “The Governor we Alabamians knew was a man of primal passion:sincere champion of the working class, cynical manipulator of theirresentments, a sorcerer summoning the beast in our nature, a man of deepinsecurities, tenderness, and finally, humility.”He added, “When he came to my office in 1974 campaigning for governor, Itold him: ‘George, you always claimed to stand up for the little man, buteverybody knows that the real underdog is the black man. We stood up forhim. You didn’t.
Why?”‘ He did not answer. He just looked down at his legsfor what seemed a very long time.”