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George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire | Article

George Wallace and His Circle

George Wallace

Asa Carter
Determined to "outnigger" the opposition in his 1962 bid for governor, George Wallace turned to the politics of race with a new fiery speechwriter, Asa Carter. Carter, a right-wing radio announcer and founder of his own Ku Klux Klan organization, was a man with a dark, troubling past. "He had a long history of violence, in fact, it’s not an exaggeration to call him something of a kind of psychopath," says Wallace biographer Dan Carter. Asa Carter had shot two men in a dispute over money just a few years before joining Wallace’s campaign, and his Klan group shared his volatile temperament. "In one eighteen-month period," recounts Dan Carter in his George Wallace biography, "his followers joined in the stoning of Autherine Lucy on the University of Alabama campus, assaulted black singer Nat King Cole on a Birmingham stage, beat Birmingham civil rights activist Fred Shuttlesworth and stabbed his wife, and, in what was billed as a warning to potential black ‘trouble-makers,’ castrated a randomly-chosen, slightly retarded black handyman."

Political observers noted a new punch in Wallace’s stump speeches during the ‘62 campaign, and Carter was credited for the change. "[Asa Carter] was this little quiet guy who always looked like he needed a shave," remembers Alabama journalist Wayne Greenhaw. "He was a hell of a writer. I mean, he knew how to put words together."

With Wallace’s victory in 1962, Carter was charged with writing a memorable inaugural speech and he leapt at the chance to make history. "He worked on that thing for two or three weeks," says Dan Carter, "holed up in a hotel room, as one of his friends said, chain-smoking one cigarette after another. And when he got through, he came to see George Wallace. He handed him the speech. And he took his finger and pointed to one line. And he said, 'Read it -- segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever -- that's the line people are gonna remember,' he said."

"And Wallace picked it up," says Alabama journalist Bob Ingram, "and looked at it and said, "I like that line. I like it, and I’m going to use it."

Carter proved valuable to Wallace’s administration and continued to draw his paycheck during Wallace’s first term in office. "Asa Carter was a most integral part of the George Wallace organization," remembers Wallace’s former finance director Seymore Trammell. "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 either he could get them to be very disturbed."

Carter’s speechwriting services reached national audiences again when Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama, barring two African American students from entering. All the major networks would carry Wallace’s symbolic stand and his statement, "[I] do hereby denounce and forbid this illegal and unwarranted action by the central government."  

However, as the times changed and the political climate in Alabama and the nation softened, Carter, ever the hard-liner, became less and less enamored of Wallace’s evolving attitude on race. He ran as a fringe candidate for governor against Wallace in 1970 and finished at the bottom of the pack with his racially-charged, divisive campaign.  

In a remarkable turnaround, Asa Carter remade his image in his later life, moving to Texas and becoming a writer under the pseudonym Forrest Carter. As Forrest Carter, he had a string of successes including "The Rebel Outlaw: Jose Wales" which became a Hollywood movie starring Clint Eastwood. He also penned the "New York Times" bestseller "The Education of Little Tree," a fictitious account of his childhood as a Native American orphan. Oddly, this "true story" became a favorite among the liberal-minded people he had despised throughout his life. Carter died in 1979 before his double identity reached national attention.

Jim Folsom
In 1946 a populist candidate for governor took Alabama by storm, becoming a political mentor to the young George Wallace in the post-war era. "Big" Jim Folsom stood six feet eight inches tall and weighed 275 pounds, towering over nearly everyone around him. He had been an insurance salesman and a sailor in the merchant marine and for years tried to obtain political office. His candidacy for governor in 1946 was considered lightly and few gave the self-avowed sinner much of a chance. Folsom’s campaign band leader, Roland Johnson, remembers how Folsom would good-humoredly respond to queries about his character: "Anytime you bait a trap with a good-looking blond, redhead or brunette, you’re going to catch old Jim everytime." In spite of his carefree nature, Folsom’s genuine charisma and his concern for working-class people above traditional, conservative interest groups propelled his campaign and his message all the way to the governor’s mansion.  

"To Big Jim Folsom," says Wallace biographer Dan Carter, "politics was about economics, economic power. He was really a creature of the 1930s and 1940s. And as he tried to shape his own political philosophy, it was to represent poor and struggling and working-class and even middle-class people against elites, against the forces of economic power that he felt like were constantly trying to keep them down."

As Folsom’s campaign caravanned all over the state, political observers including George Wallace took note of its entertaining, carnival atmosphere as well as the earthy approach of its main attraction. "He spoke to people on their level," remembers Cornelia Wallace, Folsom’s niece and Wallace’s second wife. "He wasn’t too sophisticated. He was more down home. I think people felt close to him."

Wallace, a new state representative, worked closely with Folsom and together they pushed several populist bills through the legislature funding trade schools, old-age pensions and hospitals. But Folsom’s term as governor was marred by political and personal misjudgment. He was unable to break the dominance of conservative Black Belt representatives in the legislature on larger issues such as legislative reapportionment, a revision of the 1901 state constitution, and a road construction bill to pave farm-to-market roads. He also suffered from what one historian called "too much whiskey, too many women, too few honest friends."  

Others recalled Folsom’s liberal stand on the issue of race. "Big Jim Folsom was truly a flawed masterpiece," says former Alabama journalist Ray Jenkins. "He was far ahead of his time. He was not only progressive in terms of his social and economic policies but in race policies as well. I remember in particular this speech that he made in 1949, his Christmas message to Alabama in, in which he talked in very heartfelt and compassionate terms about how it’s time to start doing something about the plight of the black people in Alabama. And saying it was time to stop just preaching brotherhood and start acting brotherhood, and as long as the black man was held down, the poor white people would be held down with him. A really remarkable man."

Zecozy Williams, an African American Alabamian and political observer recounts her fondness for Folsom and his inclusive approach to politics: "I went to one of his rallies here. He had the song, ‘Y’all come, y’all come.’ When you say, ‘Y’all come,’ that didn’t say Negro nor white. He says, ‘Y’all come.’"

During his second bid for the governship in 1954, Wallace became Folsom’s South Alabama campaign manager and traveled all over Alabama touting both the governor and himself. The popular Folsom was reelected, but his following would begin shrinking almost immediately as segregation became a more contentious and politically-charged issue. With the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on "Brown v. Board of Education," the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the federal court ordered admission of an African American, Autherine Lucy, to the University of Alabama, many whites feared a seemingly inevitable movement towards integration. Folsom did not share their concerns.  

In a memorable political blunder, Folsom invited Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell to the governor’s mansion for a visit. Powell, who had been in Montgomery to help register black voters, later bragged to the press about enjoying a scotch and soda with the governor. For many, this was the last straw, and Wallace took the opportunity to break with the politician whose campaign style he had so long admired and emulated. He spread the word amongst fellow politicians and journalists that he could no longer support a governor who had always been "soft on the nigger question."

After his second term as governor ended, Folsom ran a lackluster campaign in 1962 against his former protégé George Wallace. An unfortunate television appearance on the eve of the Democratic primary derailed his efforts and signalled the end of his political career. Folsom appeared drunk and incoherent on the statewide show. He tried to introduce his family but couldn’t remember his sons' names. His speech broke down into gibberish as he called his greedy opponents "me-too" candidates, resulting in minutes of Folsom chanting "me, too, me, too, me, too, meeee, toooo!" While friends and associates claimed Folsom had been drugged, the damage was done. He would never hold public office again despite numerous attempts.

Years later, Jim Folsom reflected on the difference in strategy which brought Wallace into office and pushed him out:

Course, George, now, George wasn’t no race bigot either back yonder. Me an’ George was always close. We just disagreed on one thing. I never did want to take any credit for hangin’ niggers. And he wasn’t always like he is now. He just wanted to get elected to things, that’s all.

Frank Johnson
When Frank Johnson, a law-school friend of George Wallace, mused that "one day I might be a federal judge," Wallace is said to have responded, "Well, that’ll be the day. I’ll be governor by then." Little could the two men have known that their dreams would come true, or that their politics and ideologies would pit them against one another throughout their careers.

The youthful friendship of Johnson and Wallace was surprising, given that the two seemed to have little in common. Johnson was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican from northern Alabama. His great-grandfather had served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Although Wallace and other student Democrats enjoyed ribbing Johnson about his politics, Wallace was a frequent guest at the home of Johnson and his wife, Ruth, who was also a university student.

During World War II, Johnson served in Europe as commander of a weapons platoon and was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for bravery. He returned to Alabama after the war to open a law practice. Johnson was active in the Republican party and organized "Alabama Veterans for Eisenhower" during the 1952 presidential campaign. President Eisenhower appointed Johnson, then thirty-five, as federal district attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. In 1955, Johnson was nominated for a federal judgeship.

Johnson’s first decision set the tone for the rest of his judicial career. As part of a federal panel, Johnson declared that "Brown v. Board of Education" applied not only to schools, but to all areas of public life. He granted the injunction against segregated seating on city buses which had been requested by the Montgomery bus boycotters. He was swiftly denounced as a "traitor" by the Alabama White Citizens’ Council.

The federal appointment brought Johnson back in contact with George Wallace, then a circuit judge in Johnson’s new jurisdiction, the Middle District of Alabama. In 1959 a federal commission began investigating discrimination against black voters in Alabama. Johnson ordered all voting records to be turned over to federal officials. George Wallace angrily announced that he would personally keep these records from the prying eyes of national officials and Judge Johnson quickly responded by threatening to put Wallace in jail for contempt of court. Hoping to avoid a long jail sentence, Wallace met with Johnson, but Johnson made it clear that if Wallace did not turn over the records in his keeping, he would be sent to jail for as long as possible. It was the last time the two men would ever speak privately. In the end, Wallace distributed the records to members of a grand jury and then quietly suggested that they give the records to federal investigators. At the same time Wallace announced that he had defied the court order.

After the integration of the University of Alabama in 1963, the federal government turned its attention to integrating the state’s public schools. Johnson soon ordered the school board in Macon County to begin desegregation. Governor Wallace sent state troopers to prevent the affected schools from opening. At Robert Kennedy’s request, Judge Johnson issued a restraining order to stop Wallace from using state troops to interfere.

For his rulings, Johnson was an outcast among white Alabamians. He and his family endured harassing and threatening letters and phone calls. After Johnson’s 1965 decision in favor of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march, federal marshals were assigned to protect the judge, his family, and even his parents. Fearful for the safety of their son, Johnny, the Johnsons sent him to a private school, which was segregated. Their action caused George Wallace to accuse the Johnsons of being hypocrites who wanted other people to send their children to integrated public schools while they did otherwise.

In the early 1970s Johnson made important rulings regarding the rights of two other neglected groups in Alabama -- mental patients and the incarcerated. He called for the state to reform Alabama’s mental hospitals, or "human warehouses" as the judge called them, and affirmed the right of patients to adequate care and treatment. In 1975 Johnson issued a court order requiring Alabama to improve the "barbaric" conditions in its state prisons.

Although a repentant George Wallace contacted Ruth Johnson in 1974 to apologize "for all the heartache," she found it difficult to forgive him. Frank Johnson refused to meet with Wallace and sent the former governor a message saying that "if he wanted to get forgiveness, he’d have to get it from the Lord." Johnson retired from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta in 1992. He died in Montgomery in 1999 at the age of 80.

Seymore Trammell
During the 1958 Alabama governor's race, Seymore Trammell, the state's attorney in George Wallace's judicial circuit, maintained a public face of neutrality. Behind the scenes, however, Trammell helped supporters of Attorney General John Patterson produce flyers accusing Wallace of being soft on race.

After Wallace lost the election in a landslide, he consulted with Trammell about running a race-based campaign in the 1962 gubernatorial election. For the next ten years, Trammell -- himself a hard-line segregationist -- would aid and abet Wallace's racist political strategy. He was one of Wallace's most trusted aides until ego and corruption drove them apart.

Like Wallace, Seymore Trammell grew up in Alabama's Barbour County. The Trammells were the only white tenant farmers on a 5,000-acre plantation. The family was very poor; Seymore and his six brothers and sisters were needed to work in the fields and attended school sporadically.

At age 17, Trammell joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program, in which he learned telegraphy. Later he joined the Army, serving for three years. On the basis of courses Trammell had taken in the military, he was admitted to the University of Alabama and finished the pre-law and law programs in three years.

Trammell's trips into black communities in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham provoked comment among other students at the university, who thought he might be involved in something shady. In fact, he was helping to support himself by managing a popular gospel group, the Harmony Jubilee Quartet. Trammell had always been entrepreneurial, and by the time he became district attorney in 1952, he was financially well-off from real estate investments.

Financing Wallace's many campaigns was an expensive proposition. However, once Wallace became governor, he had a steady source of "donations" -- kickbacks from state contracts, collected by Trammell, who had become Finance Director. Trammell was also willing to use his own assets to help the Wallace "cause." On one occasion during the 1964 Presidential primaries, Trammell loaned Wallace's campaign $20,000 to buy television air time.

After the 1968 presidential campaign, Trammell and Wallace parted ways unamicably, possibly because of opposing views on campaign tactics. (Trammell felt the campaign should have spent every available dollar on advertising in states where Wallace was running close to Nixon, but Wallace decided to save the money for a future campaign.) The former aide also hoped to have his own career in politics. When Trammell ran for state treasurer in 1970, Wallace announced that he would "not even vote for Trammell, much less lend him his support"; Trammell did not get into the general election.

At President Nixon's urging, the Justice Department had begun investigating Wallace and his associates. Nixon did not want Wallace to make another third-party bid for the presidency in 1972, and evidence of corruption would give him leverage against Wallace. Trammell had passed information about corruption in the Wallace administration to a Montgomery newspaper editor. He agreed to meet with Justice Department officials in 1970, but in the end refused to implicate Wallace and other members of the administration. The depressed and alcohol-dependent Trammell implicated himself in his conversations with Justice Department officials, however, and was soon facing charges of tax evasion. The Justice Department never felt it had enough evidence to bring a case against Wallace or his brother, Gerald, another subject of the investigation. Other Wallace supporters were indicted, but only Trammell was convicted. He served four years in a federal prison.

George Wallace
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.

Lurleen Wallace
Born in 1926, Lurleen Burns grew up in the working-class community of Northport, Alabama, across the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa. Her father, like many from Northport, made his living as a laborer, working as a river bargeman and later as a shipyard crane operator. Young Lurleen, a tow-headed tomboy, enjoyed spending weekends with him and her older brother hunting and fishing. In addition to their Northport home, the Burnses owned a small farm. Lurleen’s family on her mother’s side had been Alabama farmers for three generations and were considered "good country people" -- a euphemism for hardworking and churchgoing but poor. While not academically inclined, Lurleen did graduate from high school early in 1942 by taking summer courses. She planned to attend nursing school and helped earn her keep at home by working part time at Kresge’s five and ten cents store in Tuscaloosa.  

Glen Curlee, a friend from college, recounts Wallace’s first encounter with Lurleen: 

We got to this dimestore. "Who was that pretty little thing in there?" he says. "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?" He 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."

Wallace, a recent law school graduate and a reputed ladies man, cut a dashing figure in the eyes of the sixteen-year-old clerk. "I remember liking George from the start," Lurleen told an interviewer in 1964. "He had the prettiest dark eyes, and the way he’d cut up!" Wallace would pepper dinner at the Burnses with political conversation, a subject of little interest to Lurleen. "Politics," she once explained, "was something Daddy discussed at our house with other people -- not with me."

George and Lurleen quickly became inseparable. When World War II and Wallace’s induction into the Army Air Corps briefly forced them apart, they realized they were in love. They wed on May 21, 1943, while Wallace was on leave from his Arkansas air base.

If Lurleen had any delusions about what kind of man she had married, their honeymoon would foreshadow things to come. After a wedding night spent in a shabby boardinghouse, the couple stayed a week in a friend’s guestroom with Wallace more often than not leaving his new wife behind to talk politics with the men on main street.  

As Wallace trained for combat, Lurleen endured several lonely months shuttling back and forth between air bases and her parent’s home in Alabama. She followed him to Alamogordo, New Mexico, bringing with her their five-month-old daughter Bobbi Jo. Upon arriving, Lurleen discovered that George had neglected to secure housing at the base. The couple and child made do with a converted chicken coop for shelter.  

After the war, Wallace returned to Alabama and almost immediately began running for public office. Lurleen quickly learned what it meant to be a politician’s wife. When Wallace was elected state representative, they rented a room at a boardinghouse in Montgomery for the legislative session and lived in garage apartments in the small town of Clayton during the rest of the year where Wallace had a law office. Lurleen and the children -- Peggy Sue was born in 1950 and George, Jr. followed 18 months later -- took a backseat to Wallace’s true love, politics.  

Fed up with Wallace’s neglectful behavior, Lurleen confronted him at an outdoor poker game, "George, I can’t wash and dry the clothes and take care of the children, all at the same time." She put six-year-old Bobbi Jo in his lap and stormed off.

Wallace made amends by buying his wife an old house, but following a 1958 failed bid for governor he foundered in depression and was rumored to have had several indiscreet affairs. He was also spending more and more time on the campaign trail, focused on the next governor’s race. Lurleen had finally had enough. She took her children to her parents’ home and filed for divorce. Wallace pleaded with her to come back and she eventually did. In 1961 their fourth and final child was born, a daughter named for Robert E. Lee.  

Lurleen became Alabama’s first lady in 1963, and as her husband achieved political success, she finally received some help taking care of the children, and with the governor’s mansion, had a palace for a home. When not fulfilling her first lady obligations, Lurleen could enjoy one of her passions, fishing, and take a weekend at their cabin on Lake Martin, or simply relax with friends.  

Beginning in 1965, Lurleen’s life changed dramatically. First, her gynecologist discovered that she had uterine cancer. Terrified by the doctor’s findings, Lurleen grew angry after learning her husband had kept earlier medical suspicions from her when she delivered Lee in 1961. Wallace had not wanted to upset Lurleen and it was common practice for a doctor to follow the husband’s lead about whether or not to inform the wife. She had radiation treatment and a hysterectomy to remove an early malignant tumor.  

While Lurleen faced cancer, Wallace lost a battle in the state legislature that would have allowed a sitting governor to run for reelection. Desperately wanting to hold onto the governorship as a springboard for a 1968 presidential bid, Wallace decided on the unthinkable -- he would run his wife in his place. Despite being a poor public speaker and a political novice, Lurleen consented and announced her candidacy in February of 1966. She assured voters that Wallace would be her "#1 assistant" and that she would continue all of his programs. His popularity in Alabama overwhelming, in May Lurleen took a majority of the votes in the Democratic primary, beating out ten opponents in the first round. As the Democratic candidate, her victory was a foregone conclusion. Lurleen Wallace became the first female governor elected in the Deep South.  

As governor, Lurleen pushed for mental health and state parks initiatives, but before she became too settled in her new role, her cancer reappeared. In July of 1967, doctors detected another abdominal growth and in January a pelvic tumor. Both were treated at M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston. More surgeries and tests followed as the cancer spread, and in May of 1968, Lurleen was allowed to return home to be with her family before she passed away.  

Lurleen Wallace’s casket was placed in the state capitol on May 9. Twenty-five thousand mourners waited in line for five hours to pay their respects. Her husband, who had arguably outlived many of his supporters as well as his time in the spotlight when he died, would receive only a small fraction of that outpouring of public affection.

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