Friday, September 13, 2013

George Wallace: No Middle Ground

"There's some people who've gone over the state and said, 'Well, George Wallace has talked too strong about segregation.' Now let me ask you this: how in the name of common sense can you be too strong about it? You're either for it, or you're against it. There's not any middle ground as I know of."

George Wallace

There are many people who, regardless of almost anything else they ever did or will do, will forever be linked to the American civil rights movement.

Some made only brief contributions to the movement's history; others were a part of the conversation for years.

George Wallace, who died 15 years ago today, was one of the latter.

Earlier this year, MSNBC's Chris Hayes asserted that Wallace had been a Republican. Hayes and I don't always see eye to eye on issues, but ordinarily we do agree on historical facts. This time? Well, I'm sorry, but he had his facts wrong.

His was an understandable assumption, I suppose. Most Southern states have been solidly Republican for many years, and Wallace probably would be a Republican if he was living and running for office.

(Wallace's son and namesake was elected state treasurer in Alabama as a Democrat, but he switched to the Republican Party a decade later and was elected to the Alabama Public Service Commission.)

But George Wallace's time was the middle of the 20th century. Most successful Southern politicians were still Democrats, as they had been for more than a century.

If that sounds strange to 21st–century ears, remember that it was a time that was significantly different from today. In those days, both parties had liberals, conservatives and moderates. The parties are far more polarized today.

(I noticed in yesterday's Dallas Morning News that editor Sharon Grigsby wrote about "sorority racism" at the University of Alabama.

(With a black man in the White House for nearly five years now, it's been fashionable to toss around the accusation of racism at anyone who so much as disagrees with the president. I grew weary of that long ago. But that doesn't mean that I deny the existence of racism. I just think there are more important battles to fight than the ones that have been waged.

(This sorority thing falls in that category. I appreciate, as does Grigsby, the work that went into the Alabama student newspaper's article that exposed sorority racism on campus, but if the exclusive nature of the Greek system is the most egregious offense that one can find on the 'Bama campus, things are a lot better than they used to be.)

Wallace was probably best known for seeking the presidency as the nominee of his own political party, the American Independent Party, in 1968. Well, Wallace wasn't actually the founder of the party. That was Bill Shearer, a right–wing political activist who, along with his wife, founded the party to give Wallace, by that time the former governor of Alabama (existing state law prevented him from seeking re–election in 1966), a platform from which to campaign for the presidency.

But his political story actually began some 30 years earlier when, as a 19–year–old, he contributed to his grandfather's campaign for probate judge. Seven years later, he was appointed one of Alabama's assistant attorneys general. About a year after that, he was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives.

Ironically, considering the tone of his later political career, he was considered a moderate on racial issues in those days. But he shifted his politics after losing the Democratic nomination for governor to an avowed segregationist in 1958.

"I was outniggered," Wallace reportedly told Seymore Trammell, his 1958 campaign director, "and ... I will never be outniggered again."

(Such a pivotal moment in a politician's life story always sounded like satire to me — sort of like Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind.")

He gained national notoriety in 1963, when he pledged, in his inaugural address, to "toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny" as a tireless advocate of segregation. About six months later, he made what was largely a symbolic gesture when he made his "stand in the schoolhouse door" in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama.

As I say, the value of the stand in the schoolhouse door was largely symbolic. There was Wallace, small of stature, trying to stand up to the big guys who were assaulting the beliefs and values of his state. He lost, but he was able to take credit for the attempt to defend the little guy.

"There was always a grand sense of persecution among the Wallace workers," wrote political historian Theodore H. White of the 1968 campaign, "a nearly religious faith that everyone was against them but the people, and that the saving of white America from the pointy–heads was a cause greater than politics."

And in the cauldron that was 1968, there was a time when Wallace was a serious contender for the presidency. Like Ross Perot in 1992, though, Wallace did best in the national polls when he said the least. But it simply wasn't in Wallace's nature to remain silent.

Thus, it was probably inevitable that he tumbled in the polls the more he opened his mouth.
"Why does the Air Force need expensive new bombers? Have the people we've been bombing over the years been complaining?"

His rhetoric was incendiary, and, ultimately, it appealed to only a small minority of American voters — too small even to force the race into the House of Representatives, where Wallace hoped to play kingmaker.

Nevertheless, his campaign was the most successful third–party effort in nearly 60 years; forty–five years later, he is still the last third–party candidate to win at least one state (he won five — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi — worth 45 electoral votes).

His national ambitions were dealt a permanent blow in 1972 when he was shot while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, and he was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Wallace tried to win the nomination again in 1976, but by that time, another Southern politician, Jimmy Carter, had overtaken him in his regional base. Wallace's day had ended.

My memory is that, at the conclusion of the 1976 primary season, Wallace gracefully accepted the voters' verdict and told the nominee–to–be that he would support him in the general election campaign.

"It must have been one of the most difficult conversations Wallace had ever had to conduct, this telephone call to the man who had dashed his own presidential hopes and replaced him as the South's political hero," wrote Jules Witcover and Jack Germond in their book about the 1976 presidential campaign, "Marathon."

Wallace returned to Alabama. In 1982, after apologizing to the black voters of Alabama for his racist past, Wallace won his final term as governor. When that term ended in January 1987, he retired from public life.
"I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor."

I guess that was the great irony of George Wallace.

Nationally, I guess he was the poster child for bigotry and intolerance, but, in his judicial career before he ran for governor, Wallace was known as a liberal judge who treated everyone the same, regardless of race.

Wallace was an enigma in life, and he remains one 15 years after his death.

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