People & Events
In March, 1965, a violent confrontation between Alabama state troopers and peaceful civil rights marchers horrified the nation. The troops that beat and tear-gassed the demonstrators were under orders from Governor George Wallace to halt the march.
Thirty years later, George Wallace would sit next to the podium at a ceremony commemorating the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march, holding the hand of the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Wallace's journey from fierce segregationist to civil-rights supporter began in Barbour County, Alabama. The county prided itself on being the birthplace of five Alabama governors. At the age of fourteen, while serving as a congressional page in Montgomery, Wallace made a promise to himself that he would one day return to the capital -- as governor.
Wallace was born in 1919 to a farming family in the town of Clio. He graduated from high school in 1937, the same year his father died, and immediately enrolled in the law program at the University of Alabama, from which he was graduated in 1942. He paid his tuition by waiting on tables and accepting small pay-offs for participating in boxing matches in smoke-filled private clubs in Tuscaloosa and the surrounding area.
In 1943 Wallace married Lurleen Burns. The couple had their first child the following year. (They would later have three more children.) Wallace served with the Army Air Corps in 1945, flying nighttime incendiary missions over Japan. After being sent back to the United States for additional training, Wallace refused to return to duty and eventually was granted a discharge due to "severe anxiety."
Back in Montgomery, Wallace obtained a job as assistant attorney general. Just three months later he launched his political career with a bid for a seat in the state legislature. He was elected in 1947 and earned a reputation as a "dangerous liberal" at the capitol. In 1953 Wallace won election to a circuit judgeship that he held for six years. The same year Wallace began managing part of Governor "Big Jim" Folsom's re-election campaign. Folsom, a largely colorblind progressive, was to become Wallace's political mentor. However, times would change, and what had worked for Folsom would fail Wallace.
In 1958 Wallace entered the race for governor. Wallace thought he could remain a "moderate" on segregation and win. His opponent in the Democratic primary, Attorney General John Patterson, promoted segregation and anti-African-American policies and received the support of the Ku Klux Klan, while Wallace received the endorsement of the NAACP. Patterson defeated Wallace in a landslide.
The lesson that Wallace took away from his drubbing was that he would not be able to advance his career in Alabama without taking a hard line on race relations. In 1962 Wallace's new ideology carried him to victory; he received the largest vote of any gubernatorial candidate in Alabama's history.
But campaigning was Wallace's passion, not governing. Testing his national appeal, he entered three presidential primaries in northern states in 1964 and made a respectable showing. Hoping for more time to gather strength for a presidential run, Wallace called a special session of the Alabama legislature in 1965 and requested that they amend the state constitution to allow a sitting governor to run for a second term. The amendment failed. After a turbulent first term -- marked by violence in Birmingham and Selma and resistance to school integration -- it seemed that Wallace's career might fade.
Wallace's end-run around this obstacle was to have his wife, Lurleen, run for governor in 1966. She was elected on a platform of giving Alabamians the "same type of government you have experienced in the last three years." George Wallace would be the power behind the throne. Lurleen Wallace died of cancer halfway through her term.
Wallace made a third-party run for the presidency in 1968, winning five states in the general election, and then decided to run for governor again. Despite having freely played the race card in the campaign against incumbent Albert Brewer, after Wallace's election in 1970 he began to soften his stance on segregation. By that time a majority of Alabama's eligible African Americans was registered to vote, and Wallace had always been able to sense which way the political wind was blowing.
Two years later the governor launched another presidential campaign, this time as a Democrat. After sweeping the Florida primary, Wallace was campaigning in Maryland when tragedy struck. A mentally disturbed janitor, Arthur Bremer, shot Wallace, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. The injury ended Wallace's presidential aspirations.
Thanks to the passage of an Alabama Constitutional amendment, Wallace was re-elected to the governorship in 1974. During these consecutive administrations Wallace made a record educational appropriation; doubled health-care spending; increased old age pensions, unemployment compensation and workmen's compensation; and, as he had in his first term, worked to attract capital investment to the state.
In the years after the assassination attempt, Wallace's attitude toward racial issues underwent a dramatic change. The man who had once vowed "segregation forever" asked forgiveness of many people with whom he had clashed. Wallace was elected in 1982 to his last term as governor with strong support from African-American voters.
The four-term governor left an indelible mark on his state. At the time of his death in 1998, a number of state officeholders who had begun their careers as Wallace appointees were still serving; many parts of the state's infrastructure had been built or funded during a Wallace administration; and Wallace's states'-rights rhetoric and resistance to integration continued to shape Alabama's image.