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Dan Carter, author, on
the stand-off at the schoolhouse

Dan Carter Q: The significance of the schoolhouse door.

A: Wallace had established something of a kind of reputation after 1963, after his inaugural speech in which he promised to maintain segregation, but he was still a local parochial figure. Well, when it came time for him to live up to that pledge -- to stand in the schoolhouse door -- it was as though he instinctively understood that old Arab proverb, that a powerful man is known by having powerful enemies. And he understood that if he faced off against John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy -- people that were already hated in the deep South -- that he not only would strengthen himself politically in Alabama, but he'd also make a national reputation. Not everyone believed that, but Wallace did. And so he orchestrated the whole stand in the schoolhouse door with one goal in mind, and that was, one big dramatic, but non-violent confrontation. And that's exactly what he maneuvered himself into. The Kennedys didn't know how to react, and essentially they let him work out a kind of scenario which they had to follow, in that it's staged, from the first to the last moment, by Wallace. He has the Assistant Attorney General come up, implore, threaten, promise, entreat him. And then he's able, on national television -- all three networks -- he's able to give this somewhat stodgy but still very dignified defense of Southern traditions and institutions, but mainly couching in not in terms of racial issues; he didn't mention race at all. What he does is he couches it in terms, as he calls it, the overweening power of the national government. And he makes it a kind of confrontation, a respectable confrontation between the central government, the all-powerful central government, and local and state government. And he turned out to be exactly right in terms of the impact that that was going to have. People had been reading in the newspapers about what an awful man this George Wallace was, and then they saw him, millions of Americans saw him. And they saw somebody who was reasonably dignified, who gave at least a reason to argument in favor of states' rights, and who pledged that he would maintain law and order. As a result, almost overnight, he became the champion of, not only Southerners who were resisting integration, but also millions of conservative Americans who had become increasingly uneasy about John Kennedy's New Frontier, and as they would later become uneasy about the expanding power of the Federal Government in the 1960s. So he becomes a national figure. And although everyone knows deep down it's race, in a sense what Wallace shows in his first confrontation is how to talk about race without talking about race. That is, how to couch issues that may have a deeply, deeply racist implications, but never by using the term "nigger," or any of the other race-baiting terms that would have been used by an earlier generation of politicians.

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