Written by: Steve Fayer
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Based, in part, on "The Politics of Rage"
by Dan T. Carter
Matthew R. McClung
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© 1965 Los Angeles Times
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"Settin’ the Woods on Fire"
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"Baby, We’re Really in Love"
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George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on FireHe preached segregation now, segregation forever — then asked to be forgiven.
"In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw a line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!" – George Wallace, 1963
To many, George Wallace was the embodiment of racism in America. To others, he was a champion of Southern pride and a defender of the working class. He rose to power as the nation’s best-known segregationist in the early 1960s, but later in his career he was elected governor of Alabama with overwhelming black support. A Golden Gloves fighter, he battled his way into the national spotlight and came close to deadlocking the 1968 presidential election as a third-party candidate -- then was shot down by a would-be assassin on the eve of his greatest political victory. Wallace would spend his remaining years seeking redemption for the divisiveness he had once preached and asking forgiveness from those he had scorned, but he left a conservative political legacy that continues to influence national politics today.
Winner of the Sundance 2000 Film Festival Special Jury Prize, "George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire" is produced by Paul Stekler and Dan McCabe and written by Steve Fayer ("Eyes on the Prize," "Vote for Me," "Rock & Roll," "Nixon"). The three-hour PBS special places the public and private George Wallace within the turbulent history of the 1960s and 1970s, tracing a powerful story relevant to today’s presidential politics.
Privately, it is the saga of a onetime progressive Alabama politician who makes a devil’s bargain to become Governor -- and finds his new position on race can propel him to power he has never imagined. Politically, it is the story of the man at the middle of the transformation of American politics, from the New Deal Democratic majority to the Reagan revolution -- a transformation that can be traced through the social issues introduced into national politics by George Wallace. As Pat Buchanan, the Nixon speechwriter who recognized the potential in Wallace’s issues, says: "He has never gotten the credit for being the figure he was and having the influence he did upon subsequent politics."
Governor of Alabama for twenty years and a four-time presidential candidate, Wallace helped change the face of American politics -- and led a life of almost Shakespearian proportions. His story is told through interviews with Wallace’s family, including his wife, Cornelia, daughter, Peggy, and son, George, Jr., as well as close friends, colleagues, journalists who covered his career, and civil rights leaders who opposed him. The program also includes revelations from the diary of the man who shot him, Arthur Bremer, and from the Nixon White House.
Born in 1919 in rural south Alabama, George Wallace was raised in tiny Barbour County, birthplace of five other Alabama governors. He caught the political bug early, becoming a Senate page at fifteen. After graduating from the University of Alabama and serving in the Air Force in World War II, Wallace began the climb that would take him from state representative to circuit court judge to the 1958 race for governor. Running as a moderate alternative to John Patterson, his race-baiting opponent, Wallace was soundly defeated. Stung deeply by his first political loss, he vowed to win the next governor’s race with a new strategy: unbridled support of segregation. Within months, he was back in the headlines.
Before setting off for war, Wallace fell in love with Lurleen Burns, a young dimestore clerk. They married and began a family, but Wallace was rarely at home, instead preferring the campaign trail. His tireless campaigning became a lifelong political trait and a familial liability. "He was always gone," recalls daughter Peggy Wallace Kennedy.
Wallace entered the 1962 campaign for governor as the most defiantly pro-segregation candidate on the ticket. He won easily and, during his inaugural address, made the pronouncement on segregation that would mark him for life.
"One of his supporters, who was horrified, came up to him after his speech and said, ‘George, why are you doing this?’" recalls Wallace biographer Dan Carter. "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.’"
In the months that followed he kept a campaign promise to prevent school integration by standing in the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama before a swarm of reporters and television news cameras. "That defiant little guy standing there," remembers longtime "Montgomery Advertiser" journalist, Bob Ingram, "that pugnacious glaring expression, the chin thrust out -- he personified Southern resistance to racial integration."
Despite civil rights marches and violence in Alabama, the national exposure from the schoolhouse stand brought Wallace a measure of acclaim, encouraging him to enter a few presidential primaries in 1964. His vigorous defense of states’ rights and opposition to the pending Civil Rights Bill in the U.S. Congress resonated with many voters outside of the South, and Wallace’s campaign easily outperformed the dire predictions of his opponents.
In 1966, barred from running for reelection as governor by the Alabama constitution, Wallace convinced Lurleen to run in his place. She assured voters that her husband would be her "number-one assistant" and that his programs would continue under her watch. The decision to run was harder than the Wallaces let on: Lurleen had been diagnosed with cancer. She won in a landslide, only to die in the middle of her term. Wallace was devastated, but returned to his presidential campaign after just a few weeks of mourning.
Wallace’s third-party presidential campaign nearly threw the 1968 election before the US. Congress. A change in Alabama state law allowed him to run for Governor again, and in 1971 he returned to power. He had married a former beauty queen, Cornelia Ellis Snively, two weeks earlier. He used the governorship to stay in the public eye, announcing to the national press that he’d always been a moderate and no longer believed in racial segregation. He courted the black vote he had formerly despised, trying to build a new image as a presidential candidate. In 1972 he ran as a Democrat, upsetting the political establishment by winning the most primary votes of any candidate. A Gallup poll of America’s most admired men showed Wallace in seventh place -- just ahead of the Pope. All was going well for George Corley Wallace -- until five bullets stopped him and his national aspirations cold.
Campaigning from a wheelchair, Wallace was reelected governor twice more and made a fourth, half-hearted run for the presidency only to be trounced by a fellow Southerner, Jimmy Carter. After the shooting, Wallace’s life changed. His marriage to Cornelia crumbled. Out of office and often alone, he began to call his old enemies, asking their forgiveness. In time, he gained the political support of Alabama’s growing African American electorate. He had come full circle in his career. "I have no problem forgiving George Wallace," says J. L. Chestnut, a black attorney from Selma. "I will not forget George Wallace because we must deal with the reality of Wallace. How is it that a demagogue, insulting twenty million black people daily on the television, can rise to the heights that Wallace did? Forgive? Yes. Forget? Never."
Written by: Steve Fayer
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.
GEORGE WALLACE: 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.
David McCullough, Series Host: Hello and welcome to The American Experience, I'm David McCullough. We continue with the second and concluding part of George Wallace.
The life of Governor George Wallace of Alabama is a modern-day tragedy of Shakespearean sweep and complexity. As we have seen, a respected liberal judge, sees racism as the salvation for his stalled political career. He grabs the chance and swept to prominence, "plays many parts" of profound consequence.
"Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever" was the rallying cry. Elected governor in 1962, Wallace was soon at center stage in the national drama of civil rights, playing to the crowds, playing to the cameras, "standing in the schoolhouse door," as if to stop two black students from entering.
A storm of racial violence followed in Alabama. The jeering mobs, the fire hoses and dogs as seen on television, the cold-blooded murder of Sunday school children, the police brutality of "Bloody Sunday" at Selma were seared forever on the nation's memory.
But along with the corruption of the Wallace administration came popular programs for education, and help for the poor, black and white. When unable to run for another term, because of an Alabama law, Wallace saw that his wife was elected in his place.
By the time of her death from cancer, he had launched his first bid for the presidency, which is the point where we continue.
Through the whole course of Wallace's story, questions keep arising, up to and including the last tormented years, when he asked for forgiveness. Was it redemption he was seeking? Or re-election.
George Wallace, Settin' the Woods on Fire, Part II.
PEGGY KENNEDY: We were at dinner one night and ah we were just talking about Politics and things that were important in life and he said there are two things that were most important in life. That’s money and power, and I don’t care for money.
He loved power.
NARR: George Corley Wallace, a man who started out battling for the poor regardless of color. Then found the key to power in the outstretched hands of racism.
NARR: A man who gave voice to the hopes and fears of millions of Americans only to be gunned down in his prime.
NARR: A man who turned to the very same people he had scorned and asked for their forgiveness. George Corley Wallace, haunted by his past foreshadowing his country's future.
BRAGG: People down here still say what if? What if one of the bullets had been just a little bit over to one side, he'd still been walkin’ and standin’ and not in constant pain. You know, what if?
NARR: Five weeks after the 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. Martin Luther King stuck down only months earlier. Cities in flames, campus protests, the war in Vietnam. From out of the chaos the Nation would emerge fundamentally change. The Liberal impulse that had dominated politics since the New Deal would give away to a new conservatism .
In 1968 the man in the eye of the storm who set the agenda , law and order, the danger of big government and the minds of many the politics of race was the third party candidate for President hoping to deadlock the election.
Wallace Political Advertisement: Look America, take a good look. This was done by anarchists, revolutionaries, the Molotov cocktail set. Ask yourself why are the anti-American, anti-God anarchists also violently anti-Wallace. Want to get rid of them? Then don’t waste your vote on those that encourage the sit-ins and illegal marches. Vote for a law-abiding, God-fearing America. It takes courage. Wallace has it, do you?
Murphree: The Negro, uh, no doubt about it, has got out of hand. And I think Wallace will enforce law and order. And, uh, this is one thing that the people are concerned about. It’s dangerous for people to even leave their doors unlocked, you have to lock your doors.
GEORGE WALLACE: And it is a sad day in our country that you cannot walk even in your neighborhoods at night or even in the daytime because both national parties, in the last number of years, have kow-towed to every group of anarchists that have roamed the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles and throughout the country. And now they have created themselves a Frankenstein monster and the chickens are coming home to roost all over this country.
LEWIS: I think he knew very well in his very heart and soul what he was doing. Governor Wallace was a cold political opportunist and he used the question of race to fan the flames of division in order to seek a political goal.
TURNIPSEED: Race and being opposed to the civil rights movement and all it meant was the very heart and soul of the Wallace campaign. I mean, that’s what it was all about. And I remember I was in a little town in south central Massachusetts called Webster. I went to the Polish-American Club And the manager says, "Well," says, "when Governor Wallace is elected president," he said, "he’s going to line up all these niggers and shoot them, isn’t he?" And I said, "Oh hell, no." You know, I was being honest with him. I said, "He’s just worried about agitators and things like that." But this guy was dead serious.
Interviewer’s question [off camera]: What do you think is the biggest attraction that Wallace has?
Working man: Uh, common sense and easy-to-understand language. He can talk to the American public without making a complicated situation out of anything.
BUCHANAN: Wallace’s great trait was to cut through the political malarkey and to speak clearly and succinctly in language people could understand. I remember in 1968, we were, Nixon was saying, you know, using diplomatic, political and other skills, "We will end the war and win the peace in Vietnam," and we had this formulation. Wallace got up there and said, "Win the war, or get out," which is in retrospect, exactly what we should have done. One, or the other. And people understood that.
GEORGE WALLACE: We’ve got some professors in this part of the country who are today calling for communist victory. And they say that’s free speech. But they mean free speech only if you let them speak. They don’t want anybody else to speak. And I tell you--
TURNIPSEED: Governor Wallace used to just love to use the long-haired hippie agitators, the, the folks who were out in the front lines of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.
GEORGE WALLACE: I love you, too. I sure do. [laughter] Oh, I thought you were a she, you’re a he. Oh my goodness.
TURNIPSEED: The folks that he felt like his constituency uh, uh, just really disliked the most, you know.
GEORGE WALLACE: And when he was in California, a group of anarchists lay down in front of his automobile, and threatened his personal safety, the president of the United States! Well, I want to tell you that if you elect me the president and I go to California or I come to Arkansas and some of them lie down in front of my automobile, it will be the last one they’ll ever want to lie down in front of.
Demonstrators chant: Wallace is a pig! Wallace is a pig!
Black & white demonstrators: Wallace is a pig, ooh-ah! Wallace is a pig, ooh-ah!
GEORGE WALLACE: I want to say again what I said in the beginning. You fellas better have your day now because you’re through later on, I can tell you that much.
TRAMMELL: Uh, that would be the kind of pictures that we would want.
GEORGE WALLACE: Well, just keep on, you get me a million votes every time you show up, I’ll tell you that much.
TRAMMELL: When that would be on television, and particularly back home in the South.
GEORGE WALLACE: Come up here after I’ve completed my speech and I’ll autograph your sandals for you.
TRAMMELL: People would just, want to just leave the cotton fields early in the afternoon and get to the television and send whatever dollars they had, right into the campaign headquarters. And by doing that, we were able to finance the campaign.
Demonstrators: Wallace go home! Wallace go home!
GEORGE WALLACE: Why don’t you young punks get out of the auditorium?
GEORGE WALLACE whispers (to someone off camera in audience): What’d you say? You go to hell, you son of a bitch.
GEORGE WALLACE: And I tell you what, I may not teach you any politics if you’ll listen but I’ll teach you some good manners. I’ll teach you some good manners. I’ll teach you some good manners.
George Wallace supporters: We want Wallace! We want Wallace!
INGRAM: He was one of the few candidates that I, in my experience, that people would literally fight you over. They would, they would hit you with their fist. I mean, it-- the feelings were intense.
Wallace supporter: You shut up! You rotten finks!
Wallace supporter: You ought to take them people over there and put them in a bunch of cages and ship them off in a ship and dump them.
INGRAM: Uh, he brought that-- he was himself the boxer, the fighter.
JONES: Well, if you’ve ever seen George Wallace on the stump, you know that the fists are swinging and sometimes it’s open hands but most of the time, it’s that fist swinging to stress a point. And he was very good at it.
GEORGE WALLACE: They’ve never paid any attention to anything that the people of your state or my state did or said in the past. They ignored us and looked down their nose at us and called us everything under the sun. And I’m sick and tired of it and I resent it because I feel the people of our region are just as intelligent and refined and cultured as the people of any region of the United States or the entire world. And that’s no reflection of upon the people of any other section of our country.
CARTER: Day after day, white Southerners looked at the television and what did they see? They saw a kind of morality play in which there were the heroic, the civil rights activists, and these horrific bestial, violent white Southerners. And now you have George Wallace, standing up, standing up for America, he says, but really standing up for white Southerners.
GEORGE WALLACE: Yes, they’ve looked down their nose at you and me a long time. They’ve called us rednecks -- the Republicans and the Democrats. Well, we’re going to show there sure are a lot of rednecks in this country.
CARTER: And in that sense, he becomes the champion of the white South. It didn’t matter that he loses. He loses in ‘63 against the Kennedys. He loses again in, uh, in virtually every confrontation he has. But white Southerners are used to that since the Civil War. They’ve always lost. What is important is not, so much winning as it is being a fighter, standing up, defending your rights, showing how tough you are and, and in a sense, getting Americans to respect you.
GEORGE WALLACE: And in school lunchrooms throughout the country where public funds are involved they’ve held that as a result of this decision that little children cannot even bow their heads and say, "God is great, God is good." It violates the Constitution, they say. Well, whoever heard of any such interpretation of the Constitution of our country? Those are the things that the average man in this country is sick and tired of.
BUCHANAN: There was a tremendous counter revolution to what the Supreme Court was doing in the 50s and early 60s with its decisions on school prayer, and its decisions on integration, and its decisions later on, on abortion and things like that. And what Governor Wallace did, Governor Wallace was the first to hit these directly head-on to pick up on these issues and address these concerns of middle America And he became really the tribune of middle America, the tribune of the people.
TRAMMELL: The people that really believed in Wallace were the people that he would term as the rednecks, the wool hats, the hayseed, the footlog walkers, the square dancers, the guitar pickers. They did believe that, uh, somewhere out of the ranks of the poor people, that, uh, some person would ultimately rise and represent their thoughts, their ideas, and their wants and their wishes. And George Wallace was the man.
TURNIPSEED: He’d say "You ever heard of Mountain Brook, Alabama?" And they’d say, "No, Geor-- Governor, tell us about it." And he said, "Well, Mountain Brook is an all lily-white town. It’s over across the mountain from Birmingham. You know, Birmingham, as you know, has got all the steel mills and all. And, and you got the blue collar working class people there and, of course, they’re faced with their schools, their kids being bussed from here there to yonder to kingdom come to integrate the schools." And he says, "But you take the fellows, that, that-- the executives of the mills, the big shots of the mills, they get into air-conditioned Cadillacs and their chauffeurs drive on back up to Mountain Brook where the average home is worth about $300,000 a piece and some of the homes have 15 bathrooms in ‘em." [laughs] And he says, "And they drive up there and they sit up there at the Country Club, the Mountain Brook Country Club, and they got these little martinis and they hold their little fingers up in the air, and they sip on the martinis. And you know what they say? ‘Oh, we’ve got to be progressive, we’ve got to have some of this integration, says, it’s good.’ You know, to bus your children from here to there to kingdom come and back again and guess where their children go to school? To all-white private schools up in Mountain Brook."
CARTER: And George Wallace forces Americans, uh, to look at the, the arguments that he has, simply because of the political power that he gradually accumulates. As the electorate moves up from 8% to 10% to finally by October of 1968, about 22, 23% of the American voters say they support George Wallace for president.
NARR: The election for president was only a month away. But George Wallace’s popularity was about to be dealt a staggering blow.
TRAMMELL: George Wallace said, "Seymore, I’m gonna tell you who we need as a vice-presidential running mate. That is General Curtis LeMay. Because just think, Seymore, we can get all of the veterans voting for us."
NARR: A former Air Force Chief of Staff, General LeMay was a favorite of the political right. But his blunt manner especially on the subject of nuclear warfare had earned him a reputation as a "loose cannon." With the outspoken general at his side, George Wallace introduced to the national press his choice for vice president.
GEORGE WALLACE: General LeMay spent 37 years in the service of his country. One of the outstanding characteristics that I admire greatly is his willingness to speak his mind.
JONES: Well, about the first or second question out of the box was Jack Nelson, who represented the "LA Times."
NELSON: Uh, I asked General LeMay about his statements concerning dropping the H-bomb, you know, in a, in a war.
NARR: Anticipating such questions from the press and fearing a potential gaff, Wallace’s staff had carefully prepared LeMay.
JONES: We spent the night with LeMay, telling him, "Stay off of nuclear warfare and those type of things." If you get asked a question like that, fluff it off and say, "That has nothing to do with George Wallace and me running for president and vice president."
NARR: But the trait Wallace and LeMay shared of plain-speaking was about to go nuclear.
Reporter [off camera]: As a potential vice-president, what would be your policy in the employment of nuclear weapons?
LeMay: Well, we seem to have a-- uh, I’ll take the nuclear weapons section first. We seem to have a phobia about nuclear weapons.
TURNIPSEED: He was drawn into a long conversation about nuclear weaponry and the tests that had been done with the hydrogen bombs out in the South Pacific and so forth.
LeMay: The rats were supposed to be vaporized inside of this fireball. But, uh, the rats out there are bigger, fatter and healthier than they ever were before.
TURNIPSEED: And Governor Wallace was standing over on the side, kind of looking, and just kind of shrinking up, you could tell he wanted to get out of there.
LeMay: I don’t believe the world will end if we explode a nuclear weapon. But, on the other hand, I don’t want to explode one unless we have to. As a matter of fact, I don’t want to stick a rusty knife into anybody’s belly until I have to, either.
JONES: Wallace was so mad, and he would not let me -- "he" being Wallace -- would not let me stop the durn news conference.
NELSON: The governor, uh, tried to pull him away and, uh, said, "I know you folks, I know you out there from the Los Angeles Times, and the general don’t know how to handle you."
GEORGE WALLACE: Uh, so, Mr. Nelson he hasn’t said anything about using nuclear weapons. And, uh …
[Reporters fire off questions, "Governor, give us the peace sign."]
JONES: I, I could have got it stopped and moved on, but Wallace would not let me do it.
GEORGE WALLACE: Let General LeMay answer. General LeMay would be glad to answer your question.
NELSON: And the General, he decided that he was not gonna be denied his opportunity in the sun. And so, uh, you know he continued to answer a couple of questions.
LEMAY: If I found it necessary, I would use anything that we could dream up. Anything that we could dream up, including nuclear weapons, if it was necessary.
Reporter [off camera]: Is it possible to win a nuclear war, general?
Aide: General, we’ve got to go.
LEMAY: No, I’ll answer that. I don’t think it’s possible for anybody to win--
NELSON: I mean it was a hilarious situation in a way. But it was also kind of devastating. By the time that all of the networks ran it that evening as the lead on their program, and all the papers the next morning had the headlines on page one, uh, he’d began to go down in the polls.
JONES: I don’t, uh, blame Nelson. If I’d been sitting out there, and I’ve reported a little bit in my life, I, I may have asked the same question. It was funny, really, when it was all over, a year or so later. Wasn’t very funny that day.
NARR: The press conference earned Wallace and LeMay the nickname the "Bombsey Twins." Voters who had been cautiously leaning toward Wallace began slipping away.
[Crowd chanting "Wallace must go!" repeatedly]
NARR: In the end, Richard Nixon -- and not George Wallace -- would become the nation’s 37th President.
GEORGE WALLACE: Great reception. Great reception.
NARR: But Wallace -- who had received over 10 million votes and carried five Southern states -- had come close to achieving his real goal — deadlocking the election. With a shift of less than one percent of the vote in just two more states -- he would have had enough electoral votes to throw the election into the House of Representatives. Wallace would have been the kingmaker -- delivering the presidency to the party most willing to embrace his issues.
[Wallace Supporters: We want Wallace!]
NARR : Those issues -- and the millions of Americans who had supported him -- were not about to go away.
[Wallace Supporters: We want Wallace!]
CARTER: In 1968, uh, it is true that the heart of his support remains in the South. But even outside the South a large minority supports George Wallace. And what I think it, it, it represents is this tectonic shift in American politics that takes place in the 1960s. Race riots, the backlash against Great Society programs, uh, the divisions that are exposed by the war in Vietnam. In a sense, American politics comes unwound in the 1960s. Whether it’s through intuition or luck or simply being in the right place at the right time, George Wallace always seems to anticipate this.
GEORGE WALLACE: If you’ll sit down, I’ll drown that crowd out. If you’ll just sit down, I’ll drown ‘em out. [cheers] All he needs is a good haircut. If he’ll go to the barbershop, I think they can cure him.
CARTER: He’s the first one in many cases to raise these issues, to speak bluntly, frankly. That appeals to a large minority and it’s always a minority, but a large minority of Americans who finally say, "We have a politician who’s not going to give us some mealy-mouth, on the one hand and on the other, but he’s going to tell it like it is. Even if it’s offensive to some people, so what?
Young man: Give ‘em hell, George! Give ‘em hell! Give ‘em hell, George!
NARR: After the 1968 defeat, George Wallace returned to Montgomery, Alabama, to his modest, suburban home. He was now a single parent, raising his younger children, Peggy, George Jr. and Lee. But the widower kept a busy schedule. He traveled, raised money, and looked toward the 1972 presidential race.
Also, a new love entered his life, someone raised in politics, who easily shared the spotlight and even drew some of her own. She was Big Jim Folsom’s niece, a former beauty queen, the recently divorced Cornelia Ellis Snively.
GREENHAW: First of all, Cornelia was a beautiful woman. She was a knockout. She had raven-colored hair, she could fill out a pair of blue jeans. I mean, she would turn a head. And she turned George Wallace’s. He always liked the looks of a good-looking woman. And she was younger, and I’m sure she came on strong to George Wallace. And he, uh, and he was smitten with her.
CORNELIA.WALLACE: There was a lot of physical attraction, very passionate kind of love between us. I had known him all my life. And, uh, I didn’t really think he was attractive then -- when I was younger, but [laughs] uh, at the time I saw him and got reacquainted with him when I was not a married person and a single person. He was very attractive to me then. Uh, and I guess I was very attractive to him.
NARR: The courtship with Cornelia remained discreet -- while Wallace planned his next (political) move. Money continued to trickle into his national election headquarters in Montgomery. And he still had popularity. A Gallup poll of America's most admired men showed George Wallace in seventh place -- just ahead of the Pope. But one fact was clear to Wallace and observers alike: If he didn’t retake the Alabama governor’s office, he'd lose his political base and his national aspirations would be over.
PAUL HARVEY: Hello, Americans. I am Paul Harvey. George Wallace is fighting this time for his political life, you know. He must run for governor again or be relegated to political oblivion. And yet, you know, despite his sustained popularity with the electorate running for governor is not quite as simple as it sounds. He must run against his own political protégé, the now popular Governor Albert Brewer. Inevitably, this is going to have to be a no-holds barred campaign, involving divided insiders and influenced by prominent, interested outsiders.
NARR: Wallace’s opponent, Governor Albert Brewer, was stronger than ever. Alabama law now allowed him to run for a second consecutive term. And he soon had a secret advantage, the financial support of the president of the United States.
NARR: Wallace had come close to costing Richard Nixon the election in 1968 -- and the president was not going to let it happen again. Red Blount, a Nixon cabinet member from Alabama, thought Brewer could beat Wallace and drive him out of presidential politics. All Brewer needed, Blount said, was a little help from his friends.
EHRLICHMAN: There came a time when the president received Red Blount and me to discuss the Wallace situation. Red carried a message from Governor Brewer, uh, the effect of which was that he’d be willing to run, given the proper inducements. Well, that was an easy call for the president. He said, "By all means, give him whatever inducements he needs."
NARR: Nixon ultimately provided some $400,000, in secret cash payments, nearly a third of Brewer’s campaign budget.
INGRAM: Criticized beyond belief after the fact, but to this day and to my death, I will defend it as one of the cleanest contributions you could get. They didn't want a job. They didn't want a contract. They didn't want, uh, uh, want anything. All they wanted was to beat Wallace. What can you do? What's wrong with that?
NARR: The Nixon’s plan seemed to be working. The incumbent Brewer, a moderate, was gaining momentum and had the support of Alabama’s black electorate. It seemed George Wallace’s time had passed.
PAUL HARVEY: Alright. Wallace, pointing to national politicians in publications out to get me, protesting that George Wallace has nobody for him but the people. is right now outgunned -- but he’s not yet out maneuvered.
TURNIPSEED: I never will forget, we had a meeting of all the faithful, all the staff and so forth, and the governor addresses everybody, and says, "Look, we got to do what we’ve got to do." We’ve got to play, he didn’t say the race card, but it was obvious what, what he wanted. And, and he says, we gotta just go all out on this issue.
INGRAM: We didn't think they could, I-- we were in the-- living in the dream world of thinking maybe this issue had kind of-- it's 1970. They've seen the diffic-- the troubles, the tragedies for both in large degree by Wallace's, uh, stand. Uh, maybe times have changed. But the campaign began and it was absolutely like nothing this state had ever seen.
Reporter: What about what you say about your opponent?
GEORGE WALLACE: I say nothing about my opponent.
Reporter: How about your supporters?
GEORGE WALLACE: I don’t know what my supporters say.
INGRAM: They had smear sheets saying that Brewer was a homosexual. His wife was a drunk. One daughter was pregnant by a black. It was just, uh, terrifying --
Reporter: Governor, uh, what do you know about these obviously doctored photographs showing Governor Brewer with Elijah Mohammed and, uh, Cassius Clay or Mohammed Ali?
GEORGE WALLACE: Thank you all for being so good to us. Honey, glad to see ya.
INGRAM: On election day, I'm sitting in my office, and I got a call from North Alabama from a campaign worker who says, "The Wallace people are just going up and down the line saying, ‘Remember you're white, remember you're white.’" He said, "What can I say? How can I rebut that?" And I said, "You can't. There ain't nothing you can say." And it made the difference.
GEORGE WALLACE: There’s no reason to let any one group call all the shots in this state. And you know the militant black bloc vote in this state if they take over-- it’s going to control politics for the next 50 years in Alabama and I know you are not going to let that happen.
TURNIPSEED: And I guess that meant we were doing what we had to do, but he won the race. He became the governor.
Announcer: We present to you, the next governor of Alabama, the Governor George C. Wallace!!!
GEORGE WALLACE: If, if, if thing-- if things were not running as good as they are running now and I was running behind, I could probably tell you national newsmen that I wouldn’t have you to kick around anymore.
NARR: The joke was at Richard Nixon’s expense, a play on his famous quote in defeat from 1962, "You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore." The president’s attempt to sway the election had failed.. But the White House had another plan. The I.R.S. had already launched an investigation of George Wallace and some of his close supporters.
NARR: George Wallace returned to power on January 18th, 1971. Two weeks earlier, he had married Cornelia. After the bitter campaign based on race, Wallace announced to the national press that he’d always been a moderate and no longer believed in racial segregation. He was courting the black vote he’s so recently despised, trying to build a new image as a presidential candidate. And his new wife was judged a strong political asset.
JENKINS: We got the impression that, uh, this whole thing was sort of, uh, the way that, uh, Henry the Eighth might have chosen a wife, or, uh, or, uh, Kennedy may have chosen a running mate or something like this. It was a-- there were political calculations that went into it.
KENNEDY: My father brightened up a lot when he married Cornelia, and I, I-- she was so good for him. She would make him do things, uh. Uh, one Christmas, she made him be Santa Claus, and I have some wonderful pictures of that. And
she was just good at, at, at really bringing out the best in my father. I really, really think she was.
NARR: Many gave credit to Cornelia for a new, more sophisticated Wallace style.
TURNIPSEED: She was a very stylish person, she used to kid around and say, "We’re going to couth him up a little bit, he was a little uncouth."
CORNELIA WALLACE: George had not changed a lot since the first time I remember seeing him. He had, had greasy slicked back hair [laughs] and he had the typical, uh, either black or dark navy blue politician’s suit for the legislature. They all dressed that way. We washed his hair and used a little hair spray on his hair at times, and then I began to find better looking suits for him and suits that were stylish. He sort of began, uh, to look like the good, uh, ice cream boy in the white suit that everybody loved.
JENKINS: They did make a very stylish and interesting couple, and, and they became, to, to some extent, a kind of uh, Southern, uh, dogpatch version of Camelot, you know, uh, of, uh, Jack and Jackie, instead George and Cornelia.
NARR: Cornelia accompanied George on many of his trips, including preparations for the run for president in 1972.
CORNELIA WALLACE: We went to a meeting in Memphis, Tennessee of, uh, I guess, what was supposed to be left of his third party movement. And the -- there was a governor from, uh, Mississippi at that time who was a firebrand, got up and gave a roaring racist speech to fire up these third party, uh, people who were there. Well, it, it, wo-- there were just a very small crowd of men and they didn’t look really bright or intelligent or just like nice, ha -- happy ordinary people. And, uh, when we started on our trip back home, I said, "George," I said, "is that all you have to run with on a third party movement? Is that your party and all you have?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Well, honey, you better stay at home, [laughs] ‘cause you’re not going to make it with that group." And, uh, I mean, I assume the idea was to get elected president.
NARR: There were other reasons to reconsider the third party movement. Seymore Trammell, who had controlled Wallace campaign finances for years, had begun cooperating with the I.R.S. Its investigation was closing in on George’s brother, Gerald.
TURNIPSEED: Gerald was a kind guy, a nice guy, and an interesting guy. And I don’t think he really had any kind of racist feelings about anything. In fact, he used to tell me, said, "Tom, I don’t care about civil rights or this stuff George talks about one way or another." He said, "I like the practical part of politics." [laughs]
GREENHAW: When George became governor, Gerald seemed to just want to-- he, he used, started using the office first day. And he put the word out all over the country that to do business in Alabama, with the state of Alabama, you had to go through Gerald Wallace.
NARR: In George Wallace’s first term as governor of Alabama, Gerald’s reported income had jumped 400%, much of it from state contractors.
"Gerald was so crooked," his brother Jack once joked, "that when he dies, they’re going to have to screw him into the ground."
NARR: But in the early 1970s, Gerald’s business deals seemed to have caught up with him.
TURNIPSEED: Gerald had told me, I was the national campaign director at the time, he came by the office and he looked kind of sad. And I said, "Sag," that’s what we called him, "Sag," ‘cause he kind of sagged when he walked, [laughs] you know, he didn’t have very good posture. And I said, "What’s wrong, Sag? Man, you look sick." And he said, "Well," said, "I’m worried -- I’m afraid they got me Tom, this IRS thing." You know, they gotten all my books and I’m really worried about it and all about paying taxes.
TURNIPSEED: Gosh, I was right working in Texas. I read in the paper where, when President Nixon came down to dedicate some kind of waterway Gerald had, had met with some of the Nixon people, you know. It was in the paper.
NARR: Four days after Nixon's trip to Alabama in May 1971, Washington columnists reported that a "tenuous line of communication" had been opened between Nixon and Wallace. Seven months later, the Justice Department dropped its investigation of the Wallaces.
And George Wallace announced he would run as a Democrat and not as a third party candidate.
CARTER: George Wallace announces that he’s going to run as a Democrat, not as a third party candidate. And it’s the third party candidacy that’s the threat to Nixon. So, in a sense Nixon gets what he wants. Is it a coincidence that a couple of days after this happens, the Justice Department announces that it’s not going to continue it’s investigation against Governor Wallace or against his brother? Well, we still don’t know the answer to that question. But it certainly raised, for a number of people at the time, disturbing questions about whether a deal had been made.
NARR: Only one person went to jail as a result of the I.R.S. investigation. By cooperating, Seymore Trammell had implicated himself. He was convicted of income tax evasion and sentenced to four years in federal prison.
NARR: In March of 1972, a young man living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, took the first step of a fateful journey. "Now I start my diary," Arthur Bremer wrote, "of my personal plot to kill by pistol either Richard Nixon or George Wallace."
CARTER: From uh, his earliest, pretty sad childhood, Arthur Bremer was this pathetic loner, isolated uh, he had no friends. He grew up, went to Milwaukee primary, secondary school. Uh, was always considered to be -- as people said -- weird, a weird individual who clearly was probably mentally ill.
NARR: "No one ever noticed me nor took interest in me as an individual with the need to receive or give love. In junior high school, I was an object of pure ridicule for my dress, withdrawal, and asocial manner." Dozens of times, I saw individuals laugh and smile more in ten to fifteen minutes than I did in all my life up to then."
CARTER: In his life, I think a turning point was when he had his first crush on a girlfriend. And, uh, at first she was interested, and then, when she turned him aside, then he became obsessed with this, with somehow getting her to notice him. And he did all kinds of strange things.
Arthur Bremer’s neighbor: In January, he was, when he had long hair, and then he went to extremes and he shaved it off, and he was, he shaved it completely bald.
Reporter: You mean he shaved his hair which was long at one time, until he was completely bald?
CARTER: He wanted her to notice him, and to a, he became obsessed with making a name for himself.
NARR: "Life has only been an enemy to me. I will destroy my enemy when I destroy myself. But I want to take part of this country that made me with me."
CARTER: Well, how are you going to make a name for yourself? I mean, this is part-time busboy, a janitor. Uh, he decided to kill somebody.
NARR: "What’s a good title for this manuscript? ‘A month in the life of nobody in particular.’" George Wallace’s 1972 run for the presidency began with the Democratic primary in Florida. He quickly locked onto an issue that was dividing the nation -- the recent Supreme Court decisions affirming the use of busing to desegregate schools.
GEORGE WALLACE: This matter that they’ve come up with of busing little children to achieve racial balance is the most asinine, atrocious, callous thing I’ve ever heard of in the United States.
GEORGE WALLACE: I believe that if I win the Florida primary, that Mr. Nixon himself will step in and stop the busing of school children throughout the United States.
And I’ll bet you that when he was in Red China, he and Mao Tse Tung talked more about busing than anything else. If you want to know--
NARR: George Wallace carried every county in the state of Florida.
GEORGE WALLACE: The average citizen has spoken in the state of Florida. They are going to speak throughout the United States. I’m a serious candidate for the presidency on the Democratic ticket in the primaries. And it looks like we’re going to Miami with the greatest number of delegates. Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen. [cheers]
CORNELIA WALLACE: The Florida primary sent him out of there with a, just like on a rocket for the 1972 presidential elections.
NARR: Less than forty-eight hours after Wallace’s victory, President Nixon addressed the nation.
Nixon: I am sending a special message to the Congress tomorrow. I shall propose special legislation that will cause an immediate halt to all new busing orders by a federal court. A moratorium on new busing.
NARR: On March 23rd, George Wallace held a rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Arthur Bremer was there. "I figured Wallace would be dead or dying now if I wanted it so. After he gave the liberals hell, he stood in the open and waved and smiled."
"The audience stood, some turned to leave, some to move in for a closer view. I moved in and for the first time, saw his face. He looked heavily wrinkled and ugly.
That would have been it."
JENKINS: I had sort of expected this sort of thing to happen sooner or later. Because when you heat up the, the political, uh, environment to the extent that Wallace does, you’re going to, uh, bring a lot of kooks out of the woodwork.
WALLACE, JR: He always had told me that he realized he might be shot running for president. That was very real to him. And he said, "I, I realized that might happen." But he always believed it would be a head injury and that he would die.
NARR: "May 13, 1972. Arrived at Dearborn Youth Center at 15 after six. The hall was packed."
CHESTNUT: You just can’t go around s-- preaching hatred, however you cloak it, however you dress it up, and somehow or another, it will not come back to bite you.
NARR: "Two 15-year old girls had gotten in front of me. Their faces were one inch from the glass that would shatter with a blunt nosed bullet. They were sure to be blinded and disfigured. I let Wallace go only to spare those two stupid, innocent delighted kids. We pounded on the window together at the governor. There’d be other times."
GEORGE WALLACE: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.
NARR: The momentum from Wallace’s Florida win had continued to grow. He took a strong second in Wisconsin after only eight days of campaigning.
GEORGE WALLACE: We’ve come a long way from 8 years ago when, uh, the Democratic candidate called me something evil because I advocated that which he advocates now. And I think by the time we get to November, some of the leadership is going to be saying, you know, I just didn’t understand Wallace. He’s really a better fellow than I thought. I really didn’t know him so well.
NARR: Next was another strong second in Pennsylvania. Higher poll numbers. And overflowing crowds. Soon, the press predicted Wallace victories in some of the upcoming elections. On the morning of May 15th, Wallace departed for his last day of campaigning -- in the Maryland primary.
CORNELIA WALLACE: When we left the governor’s mansion that day, my husband had already started talking about-- he was nervous, he was just extremely nervous. He just kept saying, "I don’t think I’m going to go. "I just don’t think I’m going to make this trip." He said, "One more day of campaigning is not going to make any difference. If I haven’t won it now, I’ll, I can’t win it with one day of campaigning."
NARR: Wallace set aside his concerns and headed north for two final rallies. At the first rally, a news cameraman focused on a familiar figure -- dressed in red-white-and-blue. Arthur Bremer, standing close to the stage, asked one of the men guarding Wallace -- "Could you get George to come down and shake hands with me?’ But Wallace never mixed with the mostly hostile crowd. Instead, he and his entourage pushed on to Laurel, Maryland.
CORNELIA WALLACE: I came into the rally late at Laurel, Maryland. George was already speaking and it was a very calm crowd, very nice, congenial crowd. Everything just seemed really nice. So, he came down and he started shaking hands.
NARR: The Secret Service agent in charge asked Wallace not to go into the crowd. "That’s all right," Wallace said. "I’ll take the responsibility."
CORNELIA WALLACE: And then all of a sudden, I heard, da, da, da-da-da. And then time just stood still.
I thought they’d shoot him again. And so I jumped on top of him, trying to cover up his head and his heart and his vital organs, his lungs. And, uh, there just wasn’t anybody around him. Well, the Alabama bodyguard had been shot and blown out and knocked down. The Secret Service agent that was -- these two were supposed to protect his body -- got shot in the jaw and was vomiting and vomiting blood. So I just kept saying, uh, he, he was dazed and he didn’t speak, and I kept saying, "George, I’m going to take you home. I’m going to take you home. And we’re going home now." And, uh, finally, all of a sudden somebody was pulling me away from him. I kept begging him, I said, "Let-- don’t take me away from my husband now. Please don’t take me away from my husband now."
I was able to get in the ambulance and they put George in, and the Alabama state trooper Dothard in on another stretcher.
Emcee: Please move back, ladies and gentlemen! Let the ambulance get out of here!
Please move back! Get out of the way!!! Get out of the way!!! GET OUT OF THE WAY!!!
CHESTNUT: I think I was in a courtroom and somebody came in and said that Wallace had been shot. They were all around Selma that day, folk, who disliked George Wallace intensely, were praying that he’d recover. They didn’t want him dead, uh, and that they-- there was no rejoicing among black Alabamians that George Wallace had been shot. But there was a lot of, "The chickens have come home to roost." You heard that everywhere.
CARTER: Wallace, by the mid-1960s was certainly aware that he was a figure in danger. That is we’d had the assassination of Kenn-, the two Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, and he often talked about the danger that he had. But I think he always anticipated the kind of uh, political ideologue, somebody who opposed him, uh, uh, finding him at some moment and shooting him. George Wallace, the most intensely, ideological, political candidate of the 1960s, uh, ends up being shot by somebody who just wants to get his picture on the front page of "The New York Times."
KENNEDY: When my friend told me that he had been shot, and I don't know how to put this without it sounding, uh, really cruel, I was relieved in a way because it was over, and I didn't have to wake up another morning and think about, if this was going to be the day. And of course, you know, the fact that he lived was just, uh, wonderful. I mean, I would have given my life. I mean, I was just, it was wonderful that he lived. But the relief that, that it was over. That what you had feared was going to happen had happened, uh, just sort of rushed through me, and, uh, then I moved on and dealt with something else, see?
CORNELIA WALLACE: George was taken into the emergency room, the doctors
took a big safety pin and started pricking his leg and his skin didn’t flinch. They said, "Governor, move your legs." And, uh, they said it three or four times, and he didn’t. I said, "He’s hard of hearing, I said, he doesn’t hear well." I said, "George, move your legs." And he didn’t and then I looked up and they looked at me. And I knew he was paralyzed, they didn’t say anything.
KENNEDY: The doctor sat me down, as he did the other children, one on one, and told us that he was paralyzed. Well, um, that was like losing the '58 campaign, you-- he, he's not supposed to lose and he's not supposed to be this way. And how iron-- how ironic for as, as quick a man, uh, in step and in gesture and in everything else to be paralyzed for the rest of his natural life.
CORNELIA WALLACE: From that moment, I made another decision, that he would never see me cry. That I’d have to keep him cheered up and cheerful, that I couldn’t afford the luxury of, of mourning and weeping and letting my hurt and pain come out. And I think it was twenty years later, before I could ever really feel the pain and hurt of what had happened to my husband. Whenever I just talked about this with people. I just uh, I couldn’t talk about it anymore. And it’s still hard. It’s really hard.
NIXON: I know that all of us, uh, certainly wish that Governor Wallace in this very difficult time, uh, will have not only the very best medical care, uh, but that, uh, he can recover from the wounds that he has received.
CARTER: Within minutes after, uh, George Wallace was shot in Laurel, Maryland, the Secret Service had informed the White House.
CARTER: And, uh, Richard Nixon with several of his aides immediately begins running through, well, what are the political implications of this? How they can turn it to their advantage? And they come up with this, uh, extraordinary scheme. George McGovern is likely to be Nixon’s opponent in the upcoming presidential race. They’re going to plant McGovern material in Arthur Bremer’s apartment so that when the investigation goes forward, it will look somehow as though Arthur Bremer is a tool of George McGovern. The plan backfires, it fails because the, the F.B.I. gets there and they close off, uh, the apartment. The very idea that the President and his advisors are planning to do this, I think, in part, reflects not only the political machinations of the White House, but it also reflects the fear that Wallace instilled in the Nixon White House.
NARR: On July 7th, just seven weeks after the attempt on his life, George Wallace left Maryland’s Holy Cross Hospital.
Reporter off camera: How do you feel governor?
GEORGE WALLACE: I feel good, feel great.
NARR: With his campaign all but over he was headed to Miami, Florida, to address the delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Party officials had extended the invitation hoping to woo Wallace supporters. Wallace, in turn, hoped to find a place on the Democratic ticket.
GREENHAW: George went down and he looked pitiful. He looked like warmed over death. I mean, he looked horrible up there, suspended above this convention. I thought, my God, hey, if something slips and falls, he, he’ll be dead, you know. And what the hell is going on here? And he makes this kind of, uh, very awkward speech. I felt like, you know, he’s trying to explain himself to the Democratic party.
GEORGE WALLACE: I wanted it again to become the party of the average citizen in this country as it used to be.
GREENHAW: And it didn’t work.
EHRLICHMAN: Well, I think with most of us, he disappears. He ceases to have significance in the political race. He was not a factor in the election, and, um, we didn’t respond to him. He, he was just a non-entity.
CORNELIA WALLACE: He was very depressed at times I expended a lot of energy and effort in pumping him back up. And I said, look, you-- your life. Trying to help him to understand, to be grateful that he was alive. And it’s very easy for me to say, very hard for someone who’s going to be paralyzed. One time he just absolutely quit on us, wouldn’t get up, wouldn’t get out of bed. So I called my cousin who was an administrator of a V.A. hospital. And he said, "I’ll send you two nurses down there." And the first day they came in their uniforms and their caps and they were big women. And they, uh, came in the room, and said, "Good morning, Governor." He put, put the sheet up over his head, he just wasn’t going with them. [laughs] And uh, they said, "Well, it’s time to get up, Governor. Now what are you-- what are we going to do today, you’re going to get up or just stay in bed?" He said, "I’m going to stay in bed." And he pulled -- the sheet down and peeped out and he said, "I want to tell you two sergeants something." He said, "I’m the commander of the Alabama National Guard, the chief in commander," and said, "ain’t no two sergeants going to tell me what to do." With that, they jerked the sheet back, they grabbed him up, they put him in the wheelchair and for two weeks, they pushed him through life.
KENNEDY: My father had hoped for recovery. Uh, I think he had hopes that he would walk again, as we all did. But as the months and the years went by, uh, you know that, uh, I don't know if you call it a dream, I don't know what he called it, but it diminished. And, uh, you know, his injuries were such that it just was not going to be.
GEORGE WALLACE: I’ve had some mental stress and some anguish. And sometimes wonder, why did it happen to you? But I accepted the fact that I was not going to walk, save a miracle. And I’ve adjusted my life, I’ve accepted it. And, uh, so, I really don’t worry about it.
CORNELIA WALLACE: The thing I never told him or said publicly was that what I really loved about him was that strutty, feisty walk he had. I really loved that and it hurt me that I wouldn’t be able to see him like that again.
NARR: Wallace would remain governor of Alabama, winning re-election in 1974. But his national ambitions had not disappeared. With the fall of the Nixon presidency in scandal and the public’s disenchantment with Washington insiders, the stage seemed set for the governor to take another run.
JENKINS: You have to keep in mind that, uh, by that time, he had-- was in a wheelchair and had been paralyzed for four years, and, and the very fact that he was running from a wheelchair, uh, shows the tenacity and determination of the man.
NARR: As the first presidential candidate openly running from a wheelchair, Wallace was making history. Even as president, Franklin Roosevelt had disguised his own paralysis with carefully choreographed entrances. Thanks to a cooperative press and a vigilant secret service, there are images of FDR in a wheelchair. But times had changed. The press had a relentless fascination with images of Wallace seemingly helpless and dogged his candidacy with questions about his health.
Interviewer [off camera]: Is George Wallace well enough to run for the presidency?
CORNELIA WALLACE: He’s well, perfectly healthy and well.
GEORGE WALLACE: I can understand that people can question about my health. But Franklin Roosevelt was elected four times in a wheelchair and as Al Smith said one time, "You’re not electing an acrobat." If you needed an acrobat to be president, I would not be qualified but you don’t need an acrobat to be president.
Interviewer: He has been quoted as saying that he is in constant pain. Is he under medication anymore?
CORNELIA WALLACE: He takes, uh, Tegritol. It works on the central nervous system. But if it were any kind of, uh,thing I thought interfered with his line of work, uh—
Interviewer [off camera]: You wouldn’t let him take it.
CORNELIA WALLACE: I wouldn’t let him take it. He’d just have to suffer. [laughs]
GREENHAW: It was Cornelia’s efforts and thinking about, uh, FDR and pushing the FDR model on Wallace and his rehabilitation in 1976. Tried to get him up and ready to go and to get ready to campaign hard and strong and have him physically able where he could lift himself up.
BUCHANAN: But for someone like Wallace whose, whose appeal really is, he’s got a tremendous amount of animal energy and dynamism. If you can’t stand up there on that podium, uh, it is a tremendous disadvantage.
JENKINS: The Florida primary was the acid test for Wallace. It was early, I think it was a spring primary. Most of the national Democrats had decided to forego Florida because, uh, they knew that Wallace was very likely to take the state.
NARR: Aside from Wallace, only two Democrats entered the Florida race. One was also a governor, from a Southern state — Jimmy Carter.
Jimmy Carter: The major person being tested in Florida is not myself, it’s Governor Wallace. He’s got to do at least as well or better in ‘76 in Florida, his best state, than he did in ‘72.
NARR: Even as Wallace sought to bring the issues that had driven his career to the fore...
GEORGE WALLACE: We haven’t been against people. We’ve been against big government trying to take over and write a guideline for you and tell you how to cross the street, what to do with your union and your business when you know how to do it yourself.
NARR: His campaign soon faltered over an aide’s stumble.
GEORGE WALLACE: Getting on the airplane, while they’re getting the airplane, uh, the people lifting me into the airplane dropped me. [laughs] And I thought that, uh, I might have a problem here because that knee bent too much. So I wanted to tell the news media about it , because they make a big thing, to-do about it.
Reporter [off camera]: Do you personally consider this to be a setback at all?
GEORGE WALLACE: Well, it’s, uh, it’s a disappointment, uh, you know. I think it would be a disappointment to anyone that sprained a ligament in their knee. And, uh, but we’re going to keep going, of course. Folks, thank you.
NARR: Unable to escape concerns about his health, Wallace lost to Carter in Florida and then again in North Carolina.
JENKINS: And this had the, the double effect of first eliminating Wallace from the, uh, 1976 race, and, second, uh, giving, uh, Jimmy Carter a tremendous surge as the person who stopped George Wallace.
BUCHANAN: But the reason Wallace, uh, could not do as well and did not beat Carter, quite frankly, was simply because he was handicapped. If he had not been handicapped, uh, Jimmy Carter would not have been president.
JENKINS: And in the end, uh, George Wallace endorsed Jimmy Carter. He did it to some extent out of spite. He, uh, he thought that this would be a way of getting back at the quote "Northern liberal Democratic establishment," by, uh, supporting a Southern governor. In effect, if I can’t have it, then we’re going to have another Southern governor do it.
NARR: Carter became the first Southern governor to win the presidency since before the Civil War. He had taken the Wallace mantle as an outsider, but not the message. The Wallace themes would find a powerful voice and his supporters a new hero in Ronald Reagan. He shared Wallace’s ability to connect with everyday Americans and he attacked many of the same targets. But Reagan projected a more positive view of the country’s future and that led to a movement that would come to dominate the nation’s politics for the last decades of the 20th century. George Wallace returned to Montgomery, as he always had after a failed presidential bid. But this time, he had only two more years of the governorship. And a marriage that had lifted him up after the shooting, now crashed around him.
GREENHAW: He began to accuse her of having affairs with state troopers. She accused him of talking to his old girlfriends on the phone all the time, uh, and trying to lure them over to the mansion. They, uh, tapped each other’s phones. And then sooner or later, you know, it just turned so nasty that, uh, that they filed divorce papers, and it was a, a nasty couple of weeks in the courtrooms, uh, and, and in the newspapers.
Reporter: A truck pulled up to the governor’s mansion in Montgomery, Alabama today and loaded aboard Mrs. Cornelia Wallace’s personal items. She was moving out. Couldn’t take it anymore, she said. The vulgarity, threats and abuse, as she put it. She and Governor Wallace have had marital troubles for some time. He has a lawyer working on a divorce. She said today that she has struggled to save her marriage but without success.
NARR: 1976 seemed to be the end of a long journey for George Wallace. But there was one transformation left, one built from the suffering of a broken body, from a rediscovered religious faith, from reflection upon a life.
CARTER: George Wallace’s life uh, had its ups and downs, but it was uh, it was pretty down after, after ‘76. Uh, he’s essentially finished as a national candidate, he leaves the governorship in 1978, and he’s a fundraiser for a medical school in Birmingham, but he spends much of his time, uh, alone. Um, he’s never been very close to his family, and he broods a lot. And he begins to think about, uh, his life. I think the way all good uh, Southern evangelicals or evangelicals do, "I’m at the end of my life, now what have I accomplished, what have I done, what have I done right, what have I done wrong."
GEORGE WALLACE: 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.
TRAMMELL: I was outniggered and I will never be outniggered again.
GEORGE WALLACE: And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.
CARTER: And although Wallace would never admit that he was a hater -- he always says he wasn’t -- he realizes the consequences of his actions, in terms of those around him.
GEORGE WALLACE: And now they’ve created themselves a Frankenstein monster and the chickens are coming home to roost all over this country.
WALLACE, JR: His own suffering and purification that brings and the enlightenment that brings, and his realization that some things he had done and said could have caused others to suffer, bothered him, concerned him as a Christian.
CARTER: And so, one by one, he picks up the telephone and he begins calling his old enemies, the people who he had, uh, used as kind of punching bags in the 1960s. And asked for their forgiveness.
NARR: One of those Wallace called was a civil rights leader who’d been beaten bloody by Wallace’s state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.
LEWIS: Uh, he was very candid, very frank, I thought. He literally poured out his soul and heart to me. Uh, it was almost like a confession, like I was his priest. He was telling me everything. That he did some things that was wrong, and that he was not proud of. He, he kept saying to me, "John, I don’t hate anybody. I, I don’t hate anybody."
NARR: In 1982, Wallace returned to politics, running once again for the governor’s office.
NARR: Somehow Wallace’s pleas for forgiveness had struck a chord.
GEORGE WALLACE: And whether or not you’ve agreed with me at everything that I used to do, and agreed to, I know that you do not. I, too, see the mistakes that all of us made in years past.
Black woman: You know, God said you must repent. And he’s repented. Uh, Governor Wallace is a child of God now. You can believe that. He helped everybody, especially the black and the poor.
GREENHAW: Here’s George Wallace from a wheelchair running in ‘82. The guy wins with the black vote. He could not have won without it.
LEWIS: He wanted the black vote and he went out and campaigned for those votes. He made promises and a lot of black folks went out and voted for him and they supported him.
Black man: He said that, uh, he was wrong on segregation-- "I mistreated folk and I want a chance to repent." But the burden of proof now is on him, and, of course, only time will tell.
NARR: For the next four years, Wallace kept that promise. Appointing record numbers of blacks. And depending on a coalition of blacks and whites for legislative support.
WALLACE, JR: He had meetings, uh, in this very building in the governor’s office, among, uh, black leaders and sought to build bridges. And if he was the epitome of resistance, he became the epitome of change in the New South.
LEWIS: In a, in a very strange sense, he was somewhat reverting back to the old Wallace, maybe, just maybe to his true self.
Tammy Wynette: Governor George Wallace, we love him.
FLOWERS: I don’t think George changed later on in his life. I think he went back to the George Wallace that I used to know. He really was for the downtrodden. He really wanted to help the people that needed help. And he more or less dropped back into the old pattern of the real George Wallace.
WALLACE, JR: His health had deteriorated some during that term. And, uh, I don’t believe he believed he could give a full measure of himself, uh, had he run again. Uh, he actually had two speeches with him as he went to the capitol, and no one knew which one he planned to give. One was that he would seek the office again. One was that he would retire.
GEORGE WALLACE: I would like to be part of the future myself. And during the past few days I have done much evaluation and much soul searching. And some of you younger may not realize that I paid a pretty high price in 1972. Those five bullets gave me a thorn in the flesh, as it did for Apostle Paul. And I prayed that they should be removed but they were not. I realized in my own mind that all I’m doing is very good at the present time. As I grow older the effects of my problem may become more noticeable. I feel that I must say that I’ve climbed my last political mountain. But there’s still some personal hills that I must climb. But for now, I must pass the rope and the pick to another climber and say, "Climb on. Climb on to higher heights. Climb on ‘til you reach the very peak. Then look back and wave at me, for I, too, will still be climbing." My fellow Alabamians, I bid you a fond and affectionate farewell. You are very kind. Good-bye. Good-bye.
JENKINS: Well, [chuckles] uh, anything good out of the Wallace years? It-- I’m afraid I can’t think of a single thing. [chuckles]
INGRAM: Much that has transpired in, in government in, on the federal level in recent years was what Wallace had espoused. Not on, on, so much on race. That's, that's the same people focus on that. But he was against big government. He was for strong military. He was concerned about, uh, welfare abuse. And that's what we talk about now.
BUCHANAN: He has never gotten credit for being the, the figure he was and having the influence he did upon subsequent politics, uh, Nixon and Agnew, the Reagan movement, uh, frankly the Buchanan movement, the Perot movement, and the others.
CARTER: He’s the man who’s not visible. He’s the invisible founding father in this whole process. The very people who profited from Wallace’s ideas are the people who don’t want to recognize him. He’s simply not respectable.
CHESTNUT: I have no problem forgiving George Wallace. I will not forget George Wallace because we must deal with the reality of Wallace. How is it that a demagogue, insulting twenty million black people daily on the television, can rise to the heights that Wallace did? Forgive, yes. Forget, never.
WALLACE, JR: The man I see is not the man that many people see when they think of George Wallace. I see a man who’s walked with his Lord and his, his faith and his forgiveness of the man who shot him five times and his expression of love for that man. And I truly believe the greatest story of him has to do with that personal side, rather than anything political.
INGRAM: I think, uh, uh, [sighs] I think in this conversion of Wallace, uh, he's cramming for final exams. He knows death is not too far away, and he wants to be on the right side, and, uh, I wish him the best. I, I feel sorry for him. To see this dynamic, energetic man just be a pathetic, deaf, almost blind, paralyzed, uh, and in constant pain. Its-- I, I don't want that-- I don't wish that on anyone.
WILLIAMS: The things that he have gone through, it was enough to change him. And I do believe he has changed.