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"In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw a line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!"
George Wallace, 1963
To many, George Wallace was the embodiment of racism in America. To others, he was a champion of Southern pride and a defender of the working class. He rose to power as the nations best-known segregationist in the early 1960s, but later in his career he was elected governor of Alabama with overwhelming black support. A Golden Gloves fighter, he battled his way into the national spotlight and came close to deadlocking the 1968 presidential election as a third-party candidate -- then was shot down by a would-be assassin on the eve of his greatest political victory. Wallace would spend his remaining years seeking redemption for the divisiveness he had once preached and asking forgiveness from those he had scorned, but he left a conservative political legacy that continues to influence national politics today.
Winner of the Sundance 2000 Film Festival Special Jury Prize, "George Wallace: Settin the Woods on Fire" is produced by Paul Stekler and Dan McCabe and written by Steve Fayer ("Eyes on the Prize," "Vote for Me," "Rock & Roll," "Nixon"). The three-hour PBS special places the public and private George Wallace within the turbulent history of the 1960s and 1970s, tracing a powerful story relevant to todays presidential politics.
Privately, it is the saga of a onetime progressive Alabama politician who makes a devils bargain to become Governor -- and finds his new position on race can propel him to power he has never imagined. Politically, it is the story of the man at the middle of the transformation of American politics, from the New Deal Democratic majority to the Reagan revolution -- a transformation that can be traced through the social issues introduced into national politics by George Wallace. As Pat Buchanan, the Nixon speechwriter who recognized the potential in Wallaces issues, says: "He has never gotten the credit for being the figure he was and having the influence he did upon subsequent politics."
Governor of Alabama for twenty years and a four-time presidential candidate, Wallace helped change the face of American politics -- and led a life of almost Shakespearian proportions. His story is told through interviews with Wallaces family, including his wife, Cornelia, daughter, Peggy, and son, George, Jr., as well as close friends, colleagues, journalists who covered his career, and civil rights leaders who opposed him. The program also includes revelations from the diary of the man who shot him, Arthur Bremer, and from the Nixon White House.
Born in 1919 in rural south Alabama, George Wallace was raised in tiny Barbour County, birthplace of five other Alabama governors. He caught the political bug early, becoming a Senate page at fifteen. After graduating from the University of Alabama and serving in the Air Force in World War II, Wallace began the climb that would take him from state representative to circuit court judge to the 1958 race for governor. Running as a moderate alternative to John Patterson, his race-baiting opponent, Wallace was soundly defeated. Stung deeply by his first political loss, he vowed to win the next governors race with a new strategy: unbridled support of segregation. Within months, he was back in the headlines.
Before setting off for war, Wallace fell in love with Lurleen Burns, a young dimestore clerk. They married and began a family, but Wallace was rarely at home, instead preferring the campaign trail. His tireless campaigning became a lifelong political trait and a familial liability. "He was always gone," recalls daughter Peggy Wallace Kennedy.
Wallace entered the 1962 campaign for governor as the most defiantly pro-segregation candidate on the ticket. He won easily and, during his inaugural address, made the pronouncement on segregation that would mark him for life.
"One of his supporters, who was horrified, came up to him after his speech and said, George, why are you doing this?" recalls Wallace biographer Dan Carter. "And Wallace, sadly he thought, said, You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened."
In the months that followed he kept a campaign promise to prevent school integration by standing in the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama before a swarm of reporters and television news cameras. "That defiant little guy standing there," remembers longtime "Montgomery Advertiser" journalist, Bob Ingram, "that pugnacious glaring expression, the chin thrust out -- he personified Southern resistance to racial integration."
Despite civil rights marches and violence in Alabama, the national exposure from the schoolhouse stand brought Wallace a measure of acclaim, encouraging him to enter a few presidential primaries in 1964. His vigorous defense of states rights and opposition to the pending Civil Rights Bill in the U.S. Congress resonated with many voters outside of the South, and Wallaces campaign easily outperformed the dire predictions of his opponents.
In 1966, barred from running for reelection as governor by the Alabama constitution, Wallace convinced Lurleen to run in his place. She assured voters that her husband would be her "number-one assistant" and that his programs would continue under her watch. The decision to run was harder than the Wallaces let on: Lurleen had been diagnosed with cancer. She won in a landslide, only to die in the middle of her term. Wallace was devastated, but returned to his presidential campaign after just a few weeks of mourning.
Wallaces third-party presidential campaign nearly threw the 1968 election before the US. Congress. A change in Alabama state law allowed him to run for Governor again, and in 1971 he returned to power. He had married a former beauty queen, Cornelia Ellis Snively, two weeks earlier. He used the governorship to stay in the public eye, announcing to the national press that hed always been a moderate and no longer believed in racial segregation. He courted the black vote he had formerly despised, trying to build a new image as a presidential candidate. In 1972 he ran as a Democrat, upsetting the political establishment by winning the most primary votes of any candidate. A Gallup poll of Americas most admired men showed Wallace in seventh place -- just ahead of the Pope. All was going well for George Corley Wallace -- until five bullets stopped him and his national aspirations cold.
Campaigning from a wheelchair, Wallace was reelected governor twice more and made a fourth, half-hearted run for the presidency only to be trounced by a fellow Southerner, Jimmy Carter. After the shooting, Wallaces life changed. His marriage to Cornelia crumbled. Out of office and often alone, he began to call his old enemies, asking their forgiveness. In time, he gained the political support of Alabamas growing African American electorate. He had come full circle in his career. "I have no problem forgiving George Wallace," says J. L. Chestnut, a black attorney from Selma. "I will not forget George Wallace because we must deal with the reality of Wallace. How is it that a demagogue, insulting twenty million black people daily on the television, can rise to the heights that Wallace did? Forgive? Yes. Forget? Never."