Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Montage of images and link description. George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire Imagemap: linked to kids and home
The Film and More
Imagemap(text links below) of menu items
The American Experience
The Film & More
Program Transcript

David McCullough, Series Host: Hello and welcome to The American Experience. I'm David McCullough.

George Wallace was born in the year 1919, in the dirt-poor back country of southeastern Alabama, in a town called Clio, or Clio, the goddess of history -- and what history George Wallace made! What a turbulent, tragic path he blazed in the politics of twentieth-century America.

At its simplest, his story might seem a raw chronicle of politics at the lowest level -- hypocrisy, opportunism, graft, and most repugnant of all, rampant exploitation of racism. But very little is ever simple and the story of George Wallace is no exception. At the start of his political rise, he was a liberal, indeed, he was considered the one of the most liberal judges in Alabama, a moderate on racial issues.

He got his first notoriety with his fists, as a bantam-weight boxer at age 16. Even later, as governor and a candidate for the presidency, the jut of the jaw and lower lip gave him the look of someone always spoiling for a fight. More than anything he loved the limelight and was driven by a hunger for power. Playing to racial prejudice, he would fan a fire of rage for which countless men, women, and children paid a dreadful price.

More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle warned that democracies are most commonly corrupted by the "insolence" of demagogues. Was George Wallace, as many who knew him believe, a fundamentally decent man who would say anything to get elected? Or was he just a plain, old-fashioned, dyed-in-the-wool demagogue?

George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire, Part I, by producers Paul Stekler and Daniel McCabe.

GEORGE WALLACE: In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.

RICK BRAGG, Writer, reading: Everybody seems to be here, everybody white. The city auditorium is packed with sweaty, jostling bodies and two little blond-haired boys try hard not to get stepped on as their momma, holding tight to their hands, steers them through the cheering crowd, a band is playing Dixie and someone is waving a Confederate battle flag, back and forth, back and forth. Sam and I stand together, understanding only a little of what is being said. The governor talks about a lot of things. But mostly he seems to be telling us that we are better than the Negroes. We had not known that we were better than anybody.

J. L. CHESTNUT, Lawyer: Here’s a man of great talents, great skill, great charm, great everything. But it was all focused in the wrong direction -- in the pursuit of power for the wrong reasons. That’s the great tragedy of George Wallace.

GEORGE WALLACE: How in the name of common sense can you be too strong about segregation? You’re either for it or against it. There’s not any middle ground as I know of.

REV. FRED SHUTTLESWORTH, Civil Rights Leader: George Wallace caused a lot of suffering and a lot of misery, and I believe a lot of deaths.

PAT BUCHANAN, Political Commentator: I don’t think the Governor owes anyone an apology. How do you blame Governor Wallace who stands with his traditions and customs and state, and defies an entire national establishment?

BUCHANAN: Maybe you can say the cause was wrong, but I think the, uh, the man in many ways was right.

GEORGE WALLACE: They’ve never paid any attention to anything that the people of your state and my state did or said in the past. They’ve called us rednecks. There sure are a lot of rednecks in this country.

NARR: To some, he was the embodiment of an American evil -- segregation. To others, he was a defender of Southern pride and the working man. A politician willing to tell it like it is.

GEORGE WALLACE: When does it come to have racial overtones in this country to stand for law and order?

NARR: He divided a nation.

GEORGE WALLACE: Why don’t you young punks get out of the auditorium?

NARR: And launched a conservative movement that transformed the country.

GEORGE WALLACE SUPPORTERS: We want Wallace! We want Wallace! We want Wallace!

NARR: But his story is more than that. It’s the story of a young man trying to do right and a devil’s bargain to achieve power. It’s the story of a loving wife and a turbulent marriage that ends in tragedy. It’s the story of an old man seeking forgiveness and redemption from the very people he had scorned. And it’s the story of five bullets and what they took.

NARR: A saga of America in the twentieth century and the private journey of a man’s soul. The life of George Wallace.

NARR: George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire

GEORGE WALLACE: During the next four years, many problems will arise in the matter of segregation and civil rights, as a result of judicial decisions. Having served as judge of the 3rd Judicial Circuit of Alabama, I feel, my friends, that this judicial experience, will be invaluable to me as your governor.

CHESTNUT: Judge George Wallace was the most liberal judge that I had ever practiced law in front of. He was the first judge in Alabama to call me "Mister" in a courtroom. George Wallace said, "Mr. Chestnut," and I was almost shocked to hear that, it was so unusual.

GEORGE WALLACE: And I want to tell the good people of this state, as a judge of the 3rd Judicial Circuit, if I didn’t have what it took to treat a man fair, regardless of his color, then I don’t have what it takes to be the governor of your great state.

NARR: In 1958, Judge George Wallace was an Alabama liberal, running for governor. He tried to balance two ambitions -- to help the poor - and himself.

RICHARD FLOWERS, College Friend: George Wallace was a very unusual individual. I think he, he was a real human. He wanted to do for the, for the downtrodden, but it became politically unpopular to do for the downtrodden if he was black.

NARR: George Corley Wallace understood poverty. He’d seen it first hand. He was born in 1919 in the small town of Clio in Barbour County, Alabama. Though home to a privileged few, the county was overwhelmingly poor. Its population almost evenly split between black and white.

Wallace’s parents were neither struggling sharecroppers nor of the plantation aristocracy. "We are not poor," his mother told him. "We have plenty to eat, -- and we have screen doors."

DAN CARTER, Biographer: Wallace comes from a, not well-to-do, but a respectable middle class family. His grandfather was a doctor, well-respected. Uh, ran a drugstore, small landowner, but by the time George Wallace is born, the family, like so many in the South, has fallen on hard times. And so, while Wallace wasn't part of the desperate poor, he was poor.

NARR: Accompanying his grandfather -- the county doctor -- on house calls, George got an intimate glimpse into the lives of his neighbors.

CORNELIA WALLACE: Many of the children, black and white, down in Barbour County were delivered by Doctor Wallace, and there are many Wallace children down there named after the grandfather. But it bothered George to see people being without food, people who had to pay with a, a potato or a chicken. They just didn’t have money out in the country. The Depression years made an indelible mark on his life. It was a very desperate time.

NARR: Despite the hard times, the Wallace family grew. George was followed by Gerald, then Jack. And eleven years later, Marianne. Their mother Mozelle, at one time, an aspiring pianist, tempered the family's harsh pioneer-like existence with a pursuit of refinement. Classical music, books, and every Sunday, a march to the Methodist Church where she played hymns. George's father had a quick wit and a flair for conversation. But also a dark side. An explosive temper and a fondness for the bottle. "He was a bad one for getting into fights," an acquaintance recalled. "He’d fight ‘em all."

CARTER: His father was something of a ne'er do well, who despite his, his support from his father, simply wasn't able to make it. I think clearly Wallace wanted, he didn't want that to happen to him. He did not want to be perceived as a kind of failure. And in Barbour County, in the 1930s, there wasn't much of a way out of that place, if you had ambition, except in politics.

NARR: Wallace’s tiny county had produced five Alabama governors. Politics were sport, entertainment, a way of life.

PEGGY WALLACE KENNEDY, Daughter: My grandmother, his mother, would tell me stories about on Saturday, they would always find daddy downtown at the, at the, at the center of the town where the courthouse was, or where people gathered and played checkers and that kind of thing, just shaking people’s hands.

GEORGE WALLACE, JR., Son: When he was a very young boy in, in Clio, five- and six-years old, and he would see someone new in Clio he had not seen, he would walk up to them as a five- or six-year old and shake their hand, and say, "Welcome to Clio, if I can do anything for you, let me know."

NARR: Just watching his father count votes in a local election, Wallace later recalled, was so exciting -- it was like watching someone water ski for the first time.

CARTER: Wallace from the time he was 13 years old, was, uh, obsessed, is not too strong a word, with the political process. He lived politics, he ate politics, he absorbed it. He was exhilarated by it. And he said, in fact, from the time that he got to the state capitol when he was 14 years old. He stood on the spot where Jefferson Davis had taken the oath of office as the first president of the Confederacy and as he said, swore to himself, "I'm going to be governor someday."

NARR: Another Wallace passion was boxing. By his late teens, he was a Golden Gloves champion, two years in a row.

GEORGE WALLACE, JR, Son: There’s a picture of my father that he took home, uh, after, uh, winning a, a, a bout, and he’s throwing a good right hand. And the gentleman he hit in the nose has blood flowing from the punch, and it’s just a perfect picture.

NARR: For many who knew Wallace, boxing would become a metaphor for his later, combative political style. He always came out swinging. But Wallace would prove a cagier fighter outside the ring, carefully choosing his opponents, often waiting for their first move before throwing a devastating counterpunch.

A brilliant and instinctive opportunist.

Wallace graduated from the University of Alabama with a law degree in June 1942. A month later, with a friend Glen Curlee, he met a clerk in a five-and-dime store in Tuscaloosa. "There she was," he said. "Olive complexioned with auburn hair."

GLEN CURLEE, College Friend: He said, "Well, I’m gonna get a date with her." I said, "George, you know there’s a law against contributing to the delinquency of a minor." I said, "What’s her name?" Said, "I haven’t met her yet." I said, "Then how you gonna get a date?" He said, "You just wait and see." So he came back in a few minutes, said "I got a date with her tonight." I said, "What’s her name?" He said, "Lurleen Burns."

GEORGE WALLACE’ (from an archival source): Well, I met my wife right after she finished high school when she was only 16 years of age. ‘Course I didn’t realize how young she was. She was very pretty. And there was just some little twist or sparkle about her.

NARR: George fell hard for the working class girl, and she for him. But they shared few interests. Lurleen was known by family friends as a tomboy, who enjoyed the outdoors. "Politics," she later said, "was something daddy discussed."

NARR: Despite their differences, by George’s account, they were "desperately in love" and soon married. By the end of 1944, they had their first child Bobbi Jo and scraped by, living in a converted chicken coop near a military base in New Mexico. With World War II raging overseas, George had entered the Army Air Corps, but turned down Officer Candidate School. After the war, he reasoned that there’d be more enlisted men voting than officers.

NARR: In 1946 twenty-seven-year-old George Wallace won his first election, as state representative for Barbour County. An observer commented, "Hell, George knew every voter down to the chicken thieves."

NARR: The new legislator was a whirlwind of energy. In his first year, he introduced over 50 bills, many of them programs for the poor, paid for by new taxes on the rich.

RAY JENKINS, Alabama Journal : He had a reputation as something of a quote "socialist." He, he sponsored all of this, uh, legislation that would bring industry to the state and that sort of thing. Uh, but mainly he was identified with the Jim Folsom wing of politics, the very progressive, liberal faction of, uh, Alabama politics.

NARR: Big Jim Folsom, a twice-elected governor, dominated the post-war politics of Alabama. No politician would influence Wallace more. And Big Jim was living proof that progressive politics could lead to the governorship.

CARTER: To Big Jim Folsom politics was about economic power. To represent poor and struggling working class and even middle class people against elites, against the forces of economic power that he felt like were constantly trying to, uh, keep them down.

ZECOZY WILLIAMS, Folsom Supporter: I went to one of his rallies. He had this song, "Y’all come, y’all come." When you say, "Y’all come," that mean-- that didn’t say Negro nor white. He say, "Y’all come."

ROLAND JOHNSON, Folsom Campaign Bandleader: [strums guitar] If you’re living in the country, everybody is your neighbor. On this one thing, you can rely. They will all come to see you, and never, ever leave you, saying y’all come to see us by and by.

NARR: Folsom’s "Y’all come" reflected his steadfast resistance to the siren call of racism.

SHUTTLESWORTH: I think he wanted to make adjustments. He was one of the officials that I think were not rabid. He was not a rabid segregationist. He was not a hater.

NARR: To Big Jim, the poor were the poor, regardless of color, a view the young George Wallace seemed to share.

CARTER: The, the one thing that uh, that Wallace asked Folsom for directly was an appointment to the Tuskegee Board of Trustees, the state’s most prestigious black, uh, uh, college, university.

BOB INGRAM, Montgomery Advertiser: Unheard of that a white man from Alabama, from Barbour County, South Alabama, would want to be on that board. And I think that was the real George Wallace.

CARTER: Folsom once, once said that he thought Wallace was just a little too far ahead of his time. That he really believed that Wallace was already thinking about the time in the future when blacks would be voting in Alabama, and he wanted to be there on the ground floor.

JOHNSON: Oh, y’all come to see Jim now and then. [finishes with guitar flourish]

NARR: In 1952 Wallace won election as a circuit judge in Clayton, Alabama. The populism he practiced from the bench impressed even those who one day would be his fiercest opponents.

CHESTNUT: Wallace was for the underdog. I was representing some poor black farmers at-- they had, uh, been stripped of their cotton by a major cotton oil processor in Birmingham, and they sent down these high-priced lawyers and all that. And Walla-- Wallace was sitting there looking at ‘em, and I was sitting over at another table with my little clients in overalls and all of that. And these people looked down on us, these lawyers did. They wouldn’t even, wouldn’t even refer to us as plaintiffs. They just said, "those people," with a good deal of scorn. And you could see Wallace getting tense over that and, and giving them the eye. And finally he said to them, said, "When you address Mr. Chestnut from now on, you will address him as Mr. Chestnut. You will refer to his clients as the plaintiffs. Do you understand?" And they understood. And Wallace ruled against them and ruled for me in every case. If I was asking for 100 dollars, I got 150 dollars. He was sitting without a jury. So Wallace was quite different from the rest of the judges in Alabama.

NARR: At age 14, George Wallace had vowed to someday become governor. In 1958, at age 39, he made his move. But he now faced a new political force, one that would pit his compassion for the poor against his hunger for power. The arrest three years earlier of Rosa Parks in Montgomery for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, had grown into a Negro boycott of the city’s segregated buses, and had given rise to a mass movement for civil rights, led by a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. The protest left white Alabamians feeling under siege. In his campaign, Wallace tried to find some middle ground. Though he supported segregation, his moderate position gained the endorsement of the civil rights organization, the N.A.A.C.P.

CARTER: Even when Wallace adopts a segregationist position as he does very strongly in the mid-1950s, he still somehow feels that he can be a moderate segregationist. He tries to run as a responsible segregationist. He speaks against the Klan for example, and he tries to continue the same themes that have carried Folsom to victory.

NARR: Wallace’s opponent had other ideas. John Patterson, the state’s attorney general, had used the courts to drive civil rights activists out of Alabama. He approved of the death sentence for a black man convicted of stealing a dollar and ninety-five cents -- from a white woman. And Patterson left no doubt where he stood on integration.

John Patterson: Once you let the bar down, it’s all over. And, and I’m not for token integration or any kind of integration. And I think that some of the people in the state who’ve been advocating token integration have already, uh, sold us out before the fight even starts.

VIRGINIA DURR: John Patterson was my cousin. My mother was a Patterson. And John Patterson’s father was a very fine man. And John Patterson, I think, a perfectly intelligent person, but he ran for governor on the worst racist platform you’ve ever seen in your life. Just as racist as it could possibly be.

NARR: Just before the election, a newspaper exposed close connections between Patterson's campaign and the Ku Klux Klan. In the past, that alliance would have cost a candidate the votes of moderates. But in Alabama in 1958, the middle ground had disappeared.

GEORGE WALLACE: And I want to tell the good people of this state as a judge of the 3rd Judicial Circuit, if I didn’t have what it took to treat a man fair regardless of his color, then I don’t have what it takes to be the governor of your great state.

NARR: The final runoff wasn’t even close. Patterson was swept to victory, Wallace was devastated, his lifelong dream shattered.

BILL JONES, Wallace Campaign Staff: It’s one of the few times in Wallace’s career that he didn’t really understand what the people were thinking. He knew segregation was an issue. But he did not realize that it was the tough mean issue that it was in nineteen hundred and fifty-eight.

NARR: 1958 was a turning point for George Wallace. The defeat would change him, the future of Alabama, and the political landscape of the entire country.

CHESTNUT: George Wallace 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 we -- that he considered necessary to win.

JENKINS: And in doing that, he made a Faustian bargain. He uh-- the one time progressive decided to sell his soul for the governorship. And, uh, he could never turn back on that fully.

SEYMORE TRAMMELL, Barbour Co. District Attorney: George Wallace came back to the district after the defeat, back to our county, and he asked me if I would come over to his office and talk with him. So I did. And he said, "Seymore, you know why I lost that governor’s race?" I said, "I’m not sure, uh, Judge. What do you think?" He said, "Seymore, I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again."

CARTER: After George Wallace lost in 1958, it was, uh, his first defeat he had ever suffered in anything he had ever run for. Um, and those around him, newspaper people who covered him, his friends, noticed a real change in his personality. He drank for the first time. Uh, he was never a serious drinker, but it didn’t take but a couple of drinks to throw him off balance, um. He, he began, um, uh, having sexual liaisons in a pretty indiscriminate and careless kind of way during that period. He moved his family to Montgomery, sort of dropped them off at an apartment there, and hit the road, planning for the next election.

KENNEDY: Well, he was gone a lot. But, you see, he was always gone, so it wasn’t new to, uh, us children. I think that for mother it was different. I think it’s, was just, uh, real different for her.

NARR: For Lurleen, this was a trying time. She had two more children to raise, Peggy and George Junior, little money and an absent husband. She filed for divorce, only to be talked out of it.

ANITA SMITH, Biographer: I don’t think there’s any secret that some of his absenteeism from the home life bothered her. And I asked her point-blank one time, I said, were you really thinking about divorcing George? And she side-stepped it.

NARR: Faced with political oblivion, a desperate Wallace vowed to win with a new strategy to win the next governor’s race -- unbridled support of segregation. Within months, Wallace found a way back into the headlines -- though it meant sacrificing an old friend.

INGRAM: You know, in politics, and in every pursuit I suppose, luck has a lot to do with it. Uh, nothing-- he couldn’t have written a better scenario than the confrontation that came the next year with, uh, Federal Judge Frank Johnson here in Montgomery.

NARR: Wallace knew Frank Johnson from college where they had been close friends. In 1959, Johnson, now a federal judge ordered Alabama’s voting records turned over to a federal commission investigating discrimination against black voters. Only one local circuit judge refused to comply, for the new hard-line segregationist, it was show time.

GEORGE WALLACE: I will not comply and I will not produce records as requested by this subpoena issued by the Civil Rights Commission here in Montgomery, Alabama. Uh, this Civil Rights Commission, in my opinion, is a commission formed by the influence of carpetbaggers and it’s going to wind up acting as a kangaroo and a mock court.

INGRAM: What he wanted more than anything was to be found in contempt and be put in jail for a day. That would have been ideal. He’d be a martyr now. He’d gone to jail to protect their way of life.

NARR: Late on a January night, Wallace arranged to secretly meet his friend Johnson.

Judge Frank Johnson: He says, Judge, my ass is in a crack. We had a cup of coffee and, uh, that’s when he sa-- asked me if I would send him to jail just a little while, it would help him politically. I told him, no, if he didn’t comply with my order I would send him to jail for as long as I could.

NARR: Wallace found a way out. He avoided jail be giving up the voting records. He had lost, but in public, he claimed victory, insisting he had successfully defied the federal courts.

GEORGE WALLACE: The action today shows that if you resist them to the hilt, they will back down and they will hunt anyway they can to back down.

INGRAM: Wallace continued to tell the people and the public that he had defied a federal judge. He hadn’t defied anybody. But they believed it.

GEORGE WALLACE: This 1959 attempt to have a second Sherman’s march to the sea has been stopped in the cradle of the Confederacy.

INGRAM: Wallace got enormous attention, both within and without the state. He suddenly had become the foremost spokesman to preserve the southern way of life.

NARR: Wallace had also found a face to put on the forces of integration.

TRAMMELL: He had created a devil in Frank Johnson, and he began killing that devil.

GEORGE WALLACE: This federal judge had a lot of mean, nasty things to say about me. Why? Because he was mad that anybody would dare question an order of his. I’m the only official in the South that has been tried for standing up for you. You check the record.

TRAMMELL: And he would call Frank Johnson a bald-faced, scalawaggin’, carpetbaggin’, no-good, no-account, integratin’ liar.

GEORGE WALLACE: This Washington crowd and the federal judge backed down and when, and when and if they say they didn’t back down, they’re integratin’, scalawaggin’, carpetbaggin’ liars. [big applause]

TRAMMELL: And the people would just go wild. He loved that.

NARR: For the next three years, Wallace criss-crossed Alabama, in pursuit of the governorship. With few black Alabamians allowed to vote, the "Fighting Little Judge" had one message.

GEORGE WALLACE: 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.

NARR: The early 60s saw civil rights sit-ins and integrated freedom bus rides spread all across the South. Angry reaction from whites added more fuel to the Wallace fire.

TRAMMELL: He knew that he could not stop integration. But he knew that that was the issue. And the one issue that he could win on.

CHESTNUT: People ask me a lot of times, was Wallace a 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, he would not have favored those who felt and there were those who felt that way. But 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.

WILLIAMS: In that time, those days, people didn’t want negroes to be upgraded.

And that’s why he hollered. That’s why he said nigger, nigger, nigger. Because he knew, you know, the white people was against negroes and he wanted to be against negroes so he could be elected.

Seated Man: Say, who you going to vote for governor?

Man w/ camera: George Wallace, of course, isn’t everybody?

JOHNSON: The majority of people in the state of Alabama liked what he was saying and that’s the, the white people.

First woman: Who you voting for for governor?

Second woman: Why George Wallace, isn’t everybody?

JOHNSON: It won him the race.

NARR: When election day in 1962 arrived, Wallace won in a record landslide.

BRAGG: The part of the world where I grew up, they’d been waiting for a champion for a long time. And Wallace hit ‘em just as they were at their most angry. He hit ‘em at a time when they were looking for somebody to lead ‘em. Uh, where he took ‘em, a lot of them are ashamed, or where they went, but he took ‘em.

NARR: Part of the Wallace success was due to a new, fiery, hard-hitting style of campaigning, the result of a new speechwriter.

NARR: In later years, he’d be known as Forrest Carter, a writer claiming Native-American descent. Author of novels about "The Outlaw Josey Wales" -- and "The Education of Little Tree." But in the fifties and sixties, he went by the name Asa Carter and was the founder of his own Ku Klux Klan organization.

SEYMORE TRAMMELL. Wallace Finance Director: Asa Carter was a most integral part of the George Wallace organization. He was a man that had connections, good connections with the underworld, you might say. He was our go-between between the governor and with the Ku Klux Klan. He could keep those people quiet, or he could get them to be very disturbed.

CARTER: A group of his followers had gone out and randomly castrated a black man. He had a long history of violence. In fact, it’s not uh, an exaggeration to call him something of a kind of psychopath.

NARR: Asa Carter wrote Wallace's 1963 inaugural speech. Words to rally Southern white resistance to integration. Words branded in history with the name George Wallace.

GEORGE WALLACE: In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever. [applause]

CHESTNUT: What he was talking about was locking into place forever a system in which, in my own county, only one hundred and fifty black folk, out of fifteen thousand, were registered to vote. And each one of these had to be, uh, vouched for by a white person. If some white person didn’t say, "Ol’ Ned was alright," Ol’ Ned didn’t get registered. And here was Wallace on the television, saying he’s gonna lock that in place forever.

CARTER: When Wallace turned to the politics of race one of his supporters who was horrified, said, "George, why are you doing this? Why are you doing this?" 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. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor."

NARR: After years of non-stop campaigning, Wallace and his family settled into the relative luxury of the governor's mansion. For George, it was the fulfillment of his life’s ambition. For Lurleen, it meant finally getting help with the children, -- including the latest arrival, Lee -- from the mansion’s staff of servants.

GEORGE WALLACE: Y’all look after the little teeny one.

Servant: Alright.


Servant: Bye.

NARR: The new governor’s early acts reflected his populist roots. Free textbooks, new roads, technical schools, and junior colleges all across the state. But while Wallace enjoyed the public appearances, he soon found out that his heart wasn’t in the job.

JENKINS: Most politicians consider running for office, uh, to be an ordeal which has to be endured in order to get the office. But, uh, with Wallace, running is the, the prize in and of itself. When he wins the office, he begins to get bored. He has no interest in administration, he only wants to get elected and hear the roar of the crowd. That’s the secret of George Wallace.

NARR: And there was one issue above all, that could kept the crowd roaring.

FLOWERS: Everybody that came out of the office told me that all he wants to talk about is the race issue, the race issue. I thought surely [clears throat] that he had just used this as a means of getting elected. I thought surely he would do the right thing. But he, he, he changed.

NARR: Only three months into his term, Wallace faced massive civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, a city known for its brutal enforcement of segregation. The city’s response -- police dogs and fire hoses — shocked much of the nation.

NARR: But it wasn’t this battle that brought Wallace fully into the national spotlight. The cagey boxer chose a different arena. And a different opponent. Not civil rights marchers but the federal government. He then landed a punch that put him on the front pages all across the country.

NARR: In the spring of 1963, a federal court ordered the admission of black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood -- to integrate the University of Alabama.

NARR: In defiance of the court’s order, Wallace vowed to block the students from entering the university, even if it meant he personally had to stand in the schoolhouse door.

BILL JONES, Wallace Press Secretary: He knew, I knew and everybody around him knew that the, uh, legal battle was going to be lost. But the, uh, public relations battle, if we handled it correctly, was going to be won.

Women: Bless your heart. Bless your heart. We’re all with you.

GEORGE WALLACE: Thank you, very much, hear.

TRAMMELL: This would now project him onto the national scene as a political figure, someone to actually be dealt with and not ignored in the future. He knew that better than anyone else, and he played the part perfectly.

NED BROOKS: This is Ned Brooks inviting you to meet the press.

INGRAM: He was invited to make his first national television appearance. Larry Spivak, "Meet the Press." Oh, he was excited. I mean, boy, this was, this was big stuff. It was hostile like I have never seen.

ANTHONY LEWIS, New York Times: What is your real purpose in what you’re doing? Are you there as a political gesture, to try to arouse violence, or what, what is your purpose?

JACK NELSON, Los Angeles Times: I would say that the national press probably, uh, underestimated Wallace. In the beginning they considered him almost a buffoon.

Lawrence Spivak: Governor, the question I asked, however, was can these students be enrolled at the University of Alabama without the use of troops?

GEORGE WALLACE: Uh, uh, domestic tranquility will prevail and there will be no need for troops.

GEORGE WALLACE: Mr. Lewis, we don’t have any utopia in Alabama. Neither do you have it here in New York City where you can’t even walk in Central Park here at night without fear of being raped or mugged or shot.

JENKINS: He was capable of jousting and debating the press, uh, in the way that few other Southern governors had done before. You could almost hear the whole state of Alabama cheering.

NARR: The temperature reached 95 degrees early on the morning of June 11th, 1963. The University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa was virtually closed, patrolled by state police and units of the Alabama National Guard. Four hundred reporters crowded around the schoolhouse door, awaiting a confrontation elaborately choreographed by Wallace’s aides.

NARR: At 9:53 a.m., Wallace arrived at the campus.

TRAMMELL: I meet that automobile outside and I tell him, Governor, when you step out of this automobile, you walk right down that little concrete path there, where you see there the news media on your left, the state troopers on your right, all backed up by the, uh, National Guard. You move right through that crowd just as cocky as a quail." He walked down through there, stopping for just a moment to say some meaningless word to the press, right on into the door of the auditorium. I maneuver my way around and get inside there, and I tell him, when you see me remove my hat, that is the signal for you to step to the microphone.

NARR: At 10:48, Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach -- under orders from President Kennedy -- arrived to enforce the federal court's decision to integrate the University of Alabama.

CARTER: Wallace has the Assistant Attorney General come up, uh, 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 tradition.

GEORGE WALLACE: The unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted, and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama today of the might of the central government, offers frightful example of the oppression of the rights, privileges and sovereignty of this state by officers of the federal government.

CARTER: 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 reasoned argument in favor of states’ rights. He didn’t mention race at all.

KATZENBACH: You are going to stand in that door? That’s correct?

GEORGE WALLACE: I stand upon that statement.

KATZENBACH: You stand upon that statement. Governor, I’m not interested in a show. I don’t know what the purpose of this show is.

NARR: By late afternoon, the show for the national media was over. President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard. The Guard commander asked Wallace to step aside. And he did. No violence marred that day. Through his contacts with the Klan and a public appeal, Wallace had maintained calm.

The governor had kept his promise and made his stand in the schoolhouse door. Now, the nation was talking about George Wallace.

INGRAM: That pugnacious, glaring expression. The chin thrust out. I mean, he just-- he personified Southern resistance to race-- racial integration. He became a, he became a national, even an international, figure that day.

JONES: Money, money started pouring in, just, uh support letters. By and large, the letters were extremely favorable.

NARR: Like the fight with Judge Johnson four years earlier, no one seemed to notice that Wallace had lost. Vivian Malone and James Hood were now attending the University of Alabama.

CHESTNUT: When I look back on that schoolhouse door situation, I think indulging Wallace into this play acting sent the wrong message, gave encouragement to the wrong forces, and set off a, a chain of things down there, which disgraced this state for a long time to come.

NARR: Three months later, on the morning of September 15, a bomb planted by Klansmen, at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, exploded, injuring twenty people. And killing four little girls.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. : The governor said things and did things which caused, uh, these people to feel that they were aided and abetted by the highest officer in the state. The murders of yesterday stand as blood on the hands of Governor Wallace.

CARTER: When four little girls are killed, of course, he didn’t want that to happen, but you can’t get away from the consequences of your action. It’s not what he intended that, in the last analysis, is important. It’s that reckless disregard he showed that led to these events.

NARR: The Birmingham bombing didn’t slow the nation’s most renowned opponent of civil rights.

[Reporter: What are your plans now? When will you return to Indiana?]

NARR: Wallace, the newsmaker, now traveled the country, speaking to both hostile and friendly audiences, every appearance boosting his stature back home in Alabama.

GEORGE WALLACE: I spoke to high hoi-polloi colleges at Harvard, and at Dartmouth and at Brown. I remember speaking at Harvard. I made them the best speech they’d ever heard. [applause and laughter]

There are millions like you and I throughout this country. There are more today of us than there are of them. The others are more zo-- more, more vociferous and they are loud and they make more noise. But there are more good people than there are of these little pinkos that run around and don’t do a thing in the world but talk about human liberty. [applause and cheers]

But you ladies and gentlemen take heart-- gentlemen. I reckon there are some ladies here. I see by the paper that not many ladies are here. You’re having the same fight that we’re having in some quarters. [laughter] But it’s very bad for the folks try to destroy your traditions [laughter] and your customs. But you got to get in the mainstream. [laughter]

NARR: Wallace’s rhetoric in the North built on his successful stand at the schoolhouse door. He soft-pedaled segregation and instead, attacked new federal civil rights bills designed to end it. "Segregation forever" became "states’ rights." Defending "racial separation" became defending Americans against "Big Government."

GEORGE WALLACE: This civil rights bill will wind up putting a homeowner in jail because he doesn’t sell his home to someone that some bureaucrat thinks he ought to sell it to. My friends, a man’s home is his castle and he ought to be able-- [applause] And he ought to be able to sell it to people with blue eyes and green teeth if he wants to, it’s his home. [applause]

JENKINS: By this time he had begun to learn to speak in his so-called "code words," in which he would never ever use, uh, race and in fact, would even say that we’re not talking about race. We’re, uh, talking about, uh, merit, and, someone taking your job. But, uh there was no doubt what he was talking about.

INGRAM: People began to say, hey -- this issue of racism and concern about the blacks is not just limited to South of the Mason-Dixon line. It's up here, too. But he was the first to sense that. He knew there was a, a racial problem not just in Alabama, in Mississippi, in Louisiana and Georgia, if you please, but all over the country and he took advantage of it.

GEORGE WALLACE: There were at least 100 Confederate flags being flown in the Serbian Village Hall in South Milwaukee. And you know, the band played "Dixie." Even the Milwaukee Journal had to report this -- they played "Dixie" and 3,500 people stood and sung it in Polish. And I tell you that "Dixie" sounds good being sung in the Polish language-- [great applause and cheers]

CARTER: ‘Course, he plays upon race. In many communities where there is racial conflict between black and white working-class Americans, it’s very intense. But you can’t explain Wallace’s appeal to these people simply -- these voters -- simply on the basis of their racism. Wallace, as a lifelong outsider, taps into working class and ethnic Americans into their feelings of resentment, of anger, of frustration, of being on the outside that the only people that uh, politicians are concerned about are minorities.

NARR: The Alabama governor had stumbled onto a new constituency of Americans alienated by the civil rights movement. In 1964 Wallace saw an opportunity to demonstrate his growing popularity. He entered Democratic party primaries in Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland. With little campaigning, he took over a third of the vote.

GEORGE WALLACE: If I’m ever run out of Alabama, I know another state I can come to.

JENKINS: Well, I think you could say in, uh, 1964, uh, Wallace invented what came to be called "backlash politics." And he appealed to this vote in a very sophisticated and adroit way.

NARR: By the end of 1964, George Wallace had achieved a national following. Now more that ever, every win, every loss in the battle against civil rights in Alabama would ring across the country.

LEWIS: It was important to have a symbol, to have someone who personified the opposition and Governor Wallace emerged as a great symbol.

NARR: In early 1965, Selma, Alabama, became the site of a civil rights campaign to enable black voters to register. On Sunday, March 7th, 600 people set out for the state capital in Montgomery, 50 miles away, hoping to gain national attention. Wallace had issued an order to prevent the march. His state troopers were waiting at the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the edge of town.

Trooper: It would be detrimental to your safety to continue this march. And I’m saying that this is an unlawful assembly. You have to disperse. You’re ordered to disperse. Go home or go to your church. This march will not continue.

JOHN LEWIS, Civil Rights Leader: In the beginning, I thought we’d be arrested and just taken to jail. Uh, but when I saw the troopers putting on their gas masks and raising their sticks and the bull whips. Those moments when the troopers came toward us, I knew then we would be beaten.

NARR: The events of what would be called "Bloody Sunday" were witnessed by a horrified national television audience that night.

JENKINS: Wallace never intended for that violence to take place on that Sunday in Selma. His police chief lost control of himself and, uh, what you had was a police riot. Wallace was smart enough to know -- I mean, he was the one who invented backlash politics, and he didn’t want to create his own backlash against his politics by having this type of thing shown on the news nationwide.

JONES: Wallace was as mad, I believe, as I’ve ever seen him. He is a very sensible man. He knows that things like that hurts his political image, even in the state of Alabama.

NARR: The violence in Selma had immediate impact. Days later, President Lyndon Johnson asked Congress for the most comprehensive voting rights bill in the nation’s history. Then, a federal court in Alabama ruled in favor of the protesters.

King: Judge Johnson has just ruled that we have a legal and constitutional right to march from Selma to Montgomery. [great cheers]

NARR: Judge Frank Johnson, the old friend Wallace had vilified to rekindle his own political career, had issued the ruling. And unlike 1959, this time there was no doubt who had lost and who had won. On March 21st, thousands of marchers from across the country set out from Selma, arriving in Wallace’s state capital of Montgomery four days later.

JONES: The great outpouring of press, the great outpouring of people of stature from all areas of the country that, that got into the march, I think showed all of us around Wallace that, uh, Wallace had lost that battle.

HARPER: You could look out George’s window in the governor’s office and see, and, of course everybody knows that Martin Luther King was a great speaker. And I says, "Wallace, you see? If you could speak like Martin Luther King, you’d have had all them people following you and you’d might-- amount to something."

NARR: Wallace's aides joked that he was looking at the inauguration crowds of the future. They were not far from wrong. Over the next decade, hundreds of thousands of black voters would register in Alabama and millions more throughout the South. Wallace’s stubborn opposition had contributed mightily to the civil rights cause.

JENKINS: By making an issue of the, uh, Civil Rights Act of 1964 and particularly, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, uh, his politics and his opposition to it, uh, in effect, helped those bills be passed. That they could be called the Wallace Acts of 1964 and ‘65.

NARR: Wallace had lost on Civil Rights. Now he was about to lose the thing he cherished most. At the end of 1966, the governor would be forced out of office.

KENNEDY: Well, we were at dinner one night and, um, we were just talking about politics and, uh, things that were important in life. And he said, "There, there’re two things that are most important in life," and he said, "that's money and power and I don't care for money." He loved the power.

NARR: In 1966 Wallace faced a direct threat to his hold on power. The state constitution, no governor could hold two consecutive terms. He would have to leave office. But the solution was right by his side.

JENKINS: He came up with this idea of running his wife as a surrogate governor. It had happened once before out in Texas when a colorful couple called Ma and Pa Ferguson had pulled off this same sort of scam.

HARPER: ‘Course, the newspaper and the press tried to show that he forced her to run. But when it started, George didn’t think she had a chance. And he said, "This state’s just not ready for a woman to be governor."

NARR: George and Lurleen Wallace did not start out as a political team. Lurleen was basically a private person, happiest when out of the limelight. Painfully shy in public, her job, she said, was "to stay home and raise the kids and look after the house."

JENKINS: Never had any interest in politics. And in fact it was well known that, uh, that she even resented the fact that politics was, was George Wallace’s mistress, so to speak, uh, and that he, uh, he much preferred politics to his family.

GREENHAW: Lurleen Wallace was quiet, sweet, nice. And then, all of a sudden, you find she was a, a tough lady, too. She loved to fish. She’d go wild turkey hunting down in, uh, Lowndes County with the good ol’ boys. She was not just the quiet little mother. Not just a quiet little housewife.

SMITH: Although I disagree with so much I’ve seen about her that painted her as somebody who was not assertive, she was assertive. As somebody who didn’t have a sense of humor, she bubbled and she giggled and she had all this sense of humor. But the part that did paint her as someone who stayed in the background was true, she was reserved, she didn’t have experience. You would have had to have felt scared. But I think it was something that she was willing to do for him. She knew how much this meant to George.

JONES: One time I said, "Lurleen, why did you do this?" And she said to me, "I did it for George." She was very loyal to him when maybe she ought not to have been as loyal as she was.

NARR: The decision to run had been made under difficult circumstances. Doctors had discovered Lurleen had cancer. In the coming years, many would question whether George, pursuing his own ambitions, had pushed his wife into running.

KENNEDY: A lot of people think she was made to do it, but you, you didn’t make her do, uh, anything. [chuckles] She did what she wanted to do.

NARR: Forty-five days after major surgery -- with her doctor’s assurance that the cancer had been caught in time -- Lurleen made the announcement.

Lurleen: Ladies and gentlemen, I will be a candidate for governor of Alabama.

KENNEDY: My mother was not a natural politician. She didn't have a lot of self-confidence. I remember her practicing her speeches in ‘66. She would, uh, call me in and she would turn her chair away from me and practice her speech to see if I heard every word pronounced correctly, and that I-- that she was loud enough.

Lurleen: I ask you to cast your vote for me on May 3rd and my pledge to you is that I will continue, with my husband’s help, the same type of government you have experienced in the last three years and we will continue to stand up for Alabama.

JENKINS: In the course of the ‘66 campaign, she did, uh, seem to rather warm to the job of, uh, running, and, uh, she could make a fairly decent speech on the stump, but it was always a speech of about 2 or 3 minutes. And it would always end up with something to the effect, uh, that "I am gratified to be the instrument by which my husband can continue his governorship of Alabama." A very demeaning sort of thing, in retrospect.

GREENHAW: But-- on-- once she started running she started becoming her own person, more and more and more. She started thinking about mental health. She started thinking about, uh, school education that she’d be in charge of when she became governor. She started adding to her speeches each time until those speeches were her personality.

HARPER: George called me and says, "You know, Lurleen’s really going over good." Lurleen was the type that everybody liked. I don’t think nobody disliked Lurleen. Women or men.

NARR: Working class whites -- farmers and factory workers -- recognized Lurleen Wallace as one of their own and they pledged their support.

HARPER: She told me one day, says, "I didn’t know there was so many tobacco chewers and snuff dippers in Alabama, and, and I think I’ve kissed every one of them."

KENNEDY: It was one of the best times of her life. She truly came across as a loving compassionate person. My mother has been gone for 30 years and there’s not a day that goes by that someone does not come up to me and say how wonderful she was or how much, uh, they loved her or how much they admired her.

NARR: The 1966 Alabama election for governor would be remembered for another reason. It was the first year black voters were registered in large numbers. White Alabama politicians like Richmond Flowers openly courted their votes.

Flowers: I’m going to invite every citizen of Alabama with or without their robes and hoods to come by and watch those 50 stars as they spread out and say, "Which one, my friend, is Alabama? They’re all alike!" There’s no difference.

Lurleen: Now may I present the man who will be my number one assistant, my husband and your governor, George C. Wallace.

NARR: The large number of new black voters wasn’t lost on Wallace either, as he chose his targets.

GEORGE WALLACE: We’ll use the power and prestige of the governor’s office to try to awaken the American people to the trends that are rampant in our country. A trend that says we must fight the Communists in Vietnam while at the same time the Communist-controlled beatnik mobs in the streets influence national affairs in Washington, D.C.

Flowers: Everybody that disagrees with him is a Communist. I’ll tell you why he has removed his vengeance from the Negro and turned it towards the Communists. It’s just this simple friends-- there are not 238,000 Communists registered to vote in Alabama.

NARR: Opposing the Wallaces proved futile. With a total of ten candidates in the Democratic primary, Lurleen Wallace won in a landslide.

INGRAM: There was just no contest because of-- they loved her but more than that, they wanted George Wallace to remain in power.

NARR: In the general election that fall, Alabamians, black and white, flocked to the polls. The choice was between Lurleen Wallace and a far more conservative Republican.

CHESTNUT: My dear mother taught school in Selma, Alabama for forty years. And, uh, she had announced that she was going to vote for the Wallaces, as she put it. And I said, "You must be out of your mind. You can’t do that to me. I’m known as one of the leading civil rights lawyers in the South. How can my mother be voting for George Wallace?" And she said, "Look. George Wallace has built trade schools all over this state. George Wallace has raised the salaries of teachers three times in a row." That had never happened in her lifetime. She said, "Look. We have free textbooks in the schools. And look at the cad who’s running against George Wallace." She says, "I don’t care what my son is, I’m voting for George Wallace." And she did.


Just a year and a half after the violence at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and four years after George Wallace vowed "segregation forever," Lurleen Wallace won the governorship with 63 percent of the vote -- including a majority of Alabama’s black voters.

JENKINS: Once she became governor, she occupied the governor’s office, but the real governor’s office was just across the hall where George Wallace sat. One time Lurleen burst out of the governor’s office, unexpectedly and said "Where’s the governor?" [laughs] And, uh, and the aide seemed a little embarrassed by this, he smiled and he said, "You are the governor." She said, "You know what I mean," [laughs] and closed the door and went back in.

NARR: As governor, Lurleen Wallace pushed for reform of mental health

facilities and for expansion of state parks. And as long as she remained in office, George Wallace had a hammerlock on the government of Alabama.

INGRAM: His power was just complete and total and absolute at that point in Alabama to a fa-- I mean, it was, it was almost frightening how powerful he was. You just didn't cross George Wallace.

JENKINS: uh, he created a, uh, climate, uh, of, of hysteria, almost, in which no one could challenge Wallace.

GREENHAW: There was this atmosphere, eh, that just covered the capitol, that anybody who was not part of the Wallace team was on the outs. You, you just didn’t belong there. I later asked one of the Wallace people, "Why in the hell did you all try to browbeat everybody who comes around?" He said, "Man, we were using our power."

NARR: With the state government in his pocket, Wallace could afford to think

big. He planned to run for president in 1968. And there was already an ample source of campaign funds -- kickbacks from state contracts -- collected by his Finance Director, Seymore Trammell

TRAMMELL: I was George Wallace’s hatchet man uh, and also I was George Wallace’s son of a bitch. If money had to be gotten from somebody, a type of graft, or kickback, I was the man that had to do that and, primarily, the use of the governor’s office was for the purpose of graft, so that we could have all of the people who did business with the state: any body, contractors, engineers. They would have to contribute ten percent of that contract into the campaign fund, and that would generate, uh, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

NARR: Wallace was going to need every dollar. He planned to run against the Republicans AND the Democrats, as the candidate of his new third party.

CARTER: And, of course, the threat to the opponents is that he will capture enough electoral votes, mainly in the South, that he’ll capture enough electoral votes that um, neither of his Democratic or Republican opponents will be able to capture a majority of the electoral college. And then he’ll be in the catbird’s seat. He’ll be in a position to dictate uh, to either candidate, alright, if you support me on the following issues, then I’ll deliver the presidency.

NARR: The Wallace third party campaign began with a drive to get on the ballot in California.

Man: Come on, folks.

Man: Come on over and say hello to Governor George C. Wallace. If you’d like to shake his hands and chat with him you can do so.

Man: It will only take a minute to register if you’d like to register for George C. Wallace. We have registrars that will register you in one minute so put him on the ballot here in California.

Archival Narrator: When the campaign kicked off, many political experts said Wallace didn’t have the appeal. But if he is underestimated by some, it’s not because he sidesteps any issues. He gets right down to cases.

GEORGE WALLACE: And the Supreme Court of our country has handcuffed the police. They have rendered decisions today that are absolutely ludicrous and asinine. Turn people loose every day who are self-proven and confessed murderers of five or more people. You’ve read about it, you’ve seen it. And when they turn somebody loose who’s a self-proven murderer of five or more people, some pseudo-intellectual tells us that really he’s not to blame. Society is to blame because his poppa didn’t carry him to see the Los Angeles Rams play when he was a little boy and he’s mad with folks.

TURNIPSEED: California, you know, California always has had a great deal of extremists, you know, in politics one way or another, you know. As Governor Wallace used to say, "There’s a lot of nuts and kooks out there," you know.

In fact, we were talking about what to name the party. And he said, "We probably ought to call it the Squirrel Party." I never will forget a fella who was one of my top people in Los Angeles and he took me down to the parking lot in a-- I think it was an old pickup. Rolled the tarp back and, and he had in there all kinds of military weapons. He had bazookas and machine guns. And I said, "What’s going on?" And he says, "Oh, we’ve got maneuvers up in the desert," you know. And I says, "For what?" And he says, "Well, it’s our group." And I says, "Well, is it the National Guard?" "No, no, no, it’s a private group." And I said, I said, "What do you call it?" He said, "Well, it’s our militia." And I said, "Who, who you armed against?" you know. "Who are you after? Are the Communists going to get you?" And he said, "No, we’re more concerned about the Rockefeller interest in the trilateral commission." And I just looked at the guy, you know. What could I say?

NARR: George Wallace had begun his run for the presidency in a season of civil unrest. When an assassin took the life of Dr. Martin Luther King in the spring of 1968, America’s cities erupted. It was a situation ready-made for George Wallace.

NARR: But as he rode the tempest, with political advantage growing each day, tragedy also struck at home.

SMITH: I don’t think that, that when Lurleen ran for office she had any inkling that she was going to have a short time to live. Once it was diagnosed that it was cancer again, she was an optimistic person, but she was very grounded in realism.

SIMON: She was not bitter, I, I--Of course, as all mothers uh, uh, one of her great regrets was that she realized that she would not live to see, uh, Lee because Lee, Lee was six. And to see her grown or, or into her teens anyway. She said, "If I could just see my children grown I-- everything else would be alright."

KENNEDY: We had watched her health decline, uh, steadily for many, many months. Uh, she did come home from the hospital April the 13th. They let her come home because that was my, uh, little sister’s birthday. She did come home basically to die.

WALLACE JR: The night before she died, he came in my room and told me that, uh, that Mother would not, uh, live, would not make it. I became very upset, as he did. And, uh, uh, then we had dinner that night with the doctors in the mansion. And it was a matter of time.

KENNEDY: Uh, she never came, uh, out of her coma and we sat with her for several hours. And then, uh, we all gathered around the bedside.

WALLACE JR.: My father was holding her hand, uh, during the last few minutes of her life. And, uh, and he told her, "Lurleen, we’re here." And he named the children and that we were all with her. "Uh, if you understand, would you squeeze my hand." At which time, she squeezed his hand. And Dad asked the doctor, "Is that reflex voluntary?" And Dr. Hutchinson indicated that she, she, she hears you. She’s responding to you. So that last embrace of hands was, uh, uh, her telling us of her love for us.

NARR: "Good-bye sweetheart," were George Wallace’s last words to Lurleen.

SIMON: It was a state funeral. She lay in state in the capitol rotunda overnight. People were lined up all the way down Dexter Avenue to get into the rotunda. It was huge.

KENNEDY: It was very, very hard to, um, st-- stand there at her casket in the rotunda of the capitol while all of these people were around you and you're, you’re having to view her with no privacy. It's, it's almost like we didn't have our time together because everything was watched.

WALLACE JR: I remember driving to the cemetery with my father and he told me at that moment, uh, the day of the funeral, he said, "You don’t understand it now, but as years go by, when you understand the depth of affection people have for your mother, that will help sustain you in many ways." And it really did, knowing that so many people felt for her so deeply helped sustain us and give us strength.

NARR: Five weeks after death of his wife, Lurleen, George Wallace resumed his campaign for President. He wished that he "could have waited a little longer," he said. But Wallace was being overtaken by the rush of events. Robert Kennedy had been assassinated just the week before. In the growing chaos of violence, protest and rising crime, millions of Americans would come to believe that one man stood against the forces tearing the country apart.
Part Two...

Program Description | Program Transcript | Reference

The Film & More | Special Features | Timeline | Maps | People & Events | Teacher's Guide
The American Experience | Kids | Feedback | Search | Shop | Subscribe

©  New content 2000 PBS Online / WGBH

Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: