George Corley Wallace Jr. was born on August 25, 1919, in Clio, Alabama. I hope that your ears, like mine dear reader, have immediately perked up. Clio, after all, is the Greek muse of history. What I would give for such an auspicious beginning! After receiving a law degree from the University of Alabama and serving in the Air Force, Wallace was appointed assistant attorney general. In 1946, he was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives from Barbour County. In his early career Wallace was a racial moderate and a populist considered “soft” on segregation. In 1948 when Thurmond bolted the Democratic Party, to begin running as a ‘Dixiecrat,’ Wallace remained loyal to the party.
In 1958, Wallace ran for governor but lost a runoff to Attorney General John Patterson. The latter ran with Ku Klux Klan support while the former attacked the Klan, was supported by Alabama’s Jewish community and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). What a world we would live in if Wallace had won with a coalition like that at his back. After the election, it was reported (an anecdote that Wallace aggressively denied) that he remarked, “John Patterson out-nigguhed me. And boys, I’m not goin’ to be out-nigguhed again.” Running successfully for governor in 1962 Wallace took a firm segregationist stance. His catapult to fame and the worshippers of Clio came through his fiery inaugural address. His reputation was bolstered by his brief, though dramatic, confrontation with the U.S. Department of Justice at the University of Alabama. There he stood in “the schoolhouse door” on June 11, 1963, temporarily preventing the enrollment of two African American students before he stood aside.
His most striking (sticking?) feature, however, is that whether you approve of him or not he is there. Like the Washington Monument he stands astride the movements of the nation, and like the Washington Monument no one can stand on his shoulders. He is broken, perhaps rightfully so, and now represents another age. A darker age where racial politics were less hidden and arguably less successful. One where braver men travelled but these men were also conflicted. They were made from two quarries, divided by the Civil War, and their legacy has cracked.
Orwell, when he spoke of Dickens, summarized that he was “an institution that there is no getting away from.” George Wallace is a similar figure, and the forces he represents are equally inescapable.
When approaching a figure like George Wallace is there anything more to him than simply ‘why should I care?’ There is nothing redeeming about his bigoted and inexplicable views on race relations. His life, its productive years at any rate, were cut short by a bullet but he did not die. His life as a tragedy, a coming of age saga or a ‘battle against the odds’ founders on the rock of who he was. A white male with classically racist assumptions and outlook is excluded from the possibility of becoming a cliche-ridden morality play. I’m not sure if that is a point for or against being a racist. Regardless, he violates the first rule of all cliched summaries of his life. Simply put, ‘be politically digestible.’
I love parallel constructions, don’t you dear reader? Tacitus was never fond of them, to his detriment. Here is mine. What his racism does not violate is his political acumen, or the wide-ranging effects he had on the United States. His ideas found homes, and not only the racist ones, in some familiar places. In conservatives and liberals–Democrats and Republicans–the question we should ask is what is there that has been stolen, and especially who has stolen it.
If Kipling “is in the peculiar position of being a byword for fifty words,” as Orwell quips, then Wallace has become the byword for fifty-one: tack onto Kipling’s adjectives ‘Southern.’ It is best to broaden your horizons, dear reader, and realize that–like Kipling–Wallace is a byword for at least that much. What is impossible to escape is that George Wallace, filled with all his twinkling caricatures of the world, is a delicious contradiction. His world, the one he saw and that I will not enter, was completely fantastic. Incredible. Even, if you’ll allow me this excursion, inedible. But in spite of that his efforts somehow seem more solid and infinitely more memorable than the centuries of manhours produced by the country’s legion of civil servants. He is the perennial target of so much ire and inchoate screeds, yet he somehow remains more permanent–more ‘here’–than the titillating and tilting white knights who promise to vanquish his memory.
He is contemporaneous with the great explosion of racial prejudice that brackets the turbulent times of the Baby Boomers, Southern extremism and a sigh of the deep middle-class reaction to the excesses of the 60s. Perhaps he is synonymous. There is no sense arguing that he was an intentional force for progress. He was not simply standing astride history yelling stop, he was unloading round after round into her side with an old Remington. Yet I have the equal determination to explore the possibility that such caricature, however accurate, does not capture Wallace in his totality. It certainly does not capture the attraction many had towards him. Unluckily for me, historians and laypersons who worship alongside me at the altar to Clio, the greatest portion of Wallace’s ‘sins’–for he has sinned against the current narrative of America, a mortal sin–have been accepted by generation with only the vaguest sense of who he was. The glass over the history books is impenetrable. He has been divested of the best sort of facts–troubling ones.
Again, there is no denying that Wallace’s world is one that few want and even fewer would admit wanting. I fall, luckily, in neither camp. His appeal was narrow. It was narrow because he was an agent for a set of ideals that had only enough vitality to propel him to national fame, which is still an altogether different thing than national importance. His siren song, however, cannot be easily dismissed as an anachronism. Much less an apocalyptic tremor of dying, white middle-class America. Important parts of his platform were not only impressive to Southern sectionalists, they also appealed to Northerners, Midwesterners and beyond. Much has been made of his racism, but little of his populist rhetoric that has remained and thrived the political landscape.
Where he shined was as a part of the opposition. In fact, he challenged the system where the current permanent and pensioned opposition only dreams about. Before Occupy Wall Street–equipped with the ‘fruits’ of the same institutions they labored against and ‘bequeathed’ with the same assumptions they aimed to explode–was Wallace. Before the Tea Party–equipped with the ‘fruits’ of the same institutions they labored againt and ‘bequeathed’ with the same assumptions they aimed to explode–was Wallace. Despite the former’s best intention even the most exuberant opposition of our time lack the world view, even a false one, as complete as George Wallace’s. Boldly inaccurate? Undoubtedly. Inexcusable to our sensibilities? Yes, of course. But ultimately his thinking reflected the presence of responsibility completely lacking in both the ‘Tea Party’ and ‘Occupy’ movements. It is why his modifications to the American consensus, as it were, still strut from party headquarters to party headquarters.
For those looking to read a little bit about this man I’d suggest Black, Earl, and Merle Black. 2002. The Rise of Southern Republicans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Also Bartley, Numan. 1969. The Rise of Massive Resistance: Race and Politics in the South during the 1950s. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press. Do not forget Frady, Marshall. 1996. Wallace. New York, NY: Random House. Finally, Frederick, Jeff. 2007. Stand Up for Alabama: Governor George Wallace. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.