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J.L. Chestnut, Civil Rights activist, on
Wallace the racist

J.L. Chestnut Q:Was Wallace a racist?

A: How could he have not been? The culture is racist. And racism has been an important component of the American culture since the first slave ship docked in 1619. Wallace was born, reared in Alabama. How could he be other than racist? Now was he a Ku Kluxter? No. Did he get up every morning and say, let me go find some black folks so I could lynch them? No. He wasn't that. And he would not have favored those who felt that, and there were those who felt that way. But did he think that black folk were equal to white folk? No. He didn't think it -- probably doesn't think it now. Did he think that the schools ought to be integrated? No, he didn't think that. So sure he was racist, but I think he was a politician in pursuit of power and I think he lost his bearing because the pursuit of that power consumed him and obsessed him.

Wallace understood how important race was or is in America. And he also understood that America had pretty much left the South -- the white South -- alone in its dealings with black folk. And I think he misunderstood, however, that there were limits to how far America would sit back and say nothing. I think he also misunderstood that the Second World War expanded educational opportunities. A huge migration to the industrial cities of this nation and the G.I. Bill and all of that had produced a different kind of African-American. My generation was quite different than my father's generation. Wallace was at home and understood my father's generation. He didn't understand the generation that produced Martin Luther King and J.L. Chesnut, for that matter. I don't know whether he understands that even to this day. But he understood those other blacks and he was at home and comfortable with them. I think that when Wallace started out, and he approached the whole business of racial politics in the manner he had lived to that point, even as a judge. He was running against John Patterson. And George Wallace, by Alabama standards, was a liberal in that contest. And he lost. And with his keen political antenna, understood immediately why he had lost. And I think he decided at that point that he would exploit race to the extent it took necessary -- that he considered necessary to win. And I think that's exactly what he did. He set out to pursue power. And the reason I know that it was no more than the pursuit of power is because he could be perfectly reasonable in a conversation with a black person. And he could leave, and in the next ten minutes, deliver the most racist appeal that you've ever heard in pursuit of votes. I also know that he never was comfortable with the Ku Kluxes, but he would pursue them at least to some extent to gather their votes. Wallace was far more comfortable with black folk than he was with the Ku Kluxes.

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