George Wallace annon Former Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama, who built his political career on segregation and spent a tormented retirement arguing that he was not a racist in his heart, died Sunday night at Jackson Hospital in Montgomery. He was 79 and lived in Montgomery, Ala. Wallace died of respiratory and cardiac arrest at 9:49 p.m., said Dana Beyerly, a spokeswoman for Jackson Hospital in Montgomery. Wallace had been in declining health since being shot in his 1972 presidential campaign by a 21-year-old drifter named Arthur Bremer.
Wallace, a Democrat who was a longtime champion of states’ rights, dominated his own state for almost a generation. But his wish was to be remembered as a man who might have been president and whose campaigns for that office in 1968, 1972 and 1976 established political trends that have dominated American politics for the last quarter of the 20th century. He believed that his underdog campaigns made it possible for two other Southerners, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, to be taken seriously as presidential candidates. He also argued ceaselessly that his theme of middle-class empowerment was borrowed by Richard Nixon in 1968 and then grabbed by another Californian, Ronald Reagan, as the spine of his triumphant populist conservatism. In interviews later in his life, Wallace was always less keen to talk about his other major role in Southern history.
After being elected to his first term as governor in 1962, he became the foil for the huge protests that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to destroy segregation in public accommodations in 1963 and to secure voting rights for blacks in 1965. As a young man, Wallace came boiling out of the sun-stricken, Rebel-haunted reaches of southeast Alabama to win the governorship on his second try. He became the only Alabamian ever sworn in for four terms as governor, winning elections in 1962, 1970, 1974 and 1982.
He retired at the end of his last term in January 1987. So great was his sway over Alabama that by the time he had been in office only two years, other candidates literally begged him for permission to put his slogan, ‘Stand Up for Alabama,’ on their billboards. Sens. John Sparkman and Lister Hill, New Deal veterans who were powers in Washington and the national Democratic Party, feared to contradict him in public when he vowed to plunge the state into unrelenting confrontation with the federal government over the integration of schools, buses, restrooms and public places in Alabama. It was a power built entirely on his promise to Alabama’s white voting majority to continue the historic oppression of its disfranchised and largely impoverished black citizens. And it was snapshots of the peak moments of Wallace’s campaign of racial oppression that burned him into the nation’s consciousness as the Deep South’s most forceful political brawler since Huey Long of Louisiana.
First, on Jan. 14, 1963, there was his inaugural address, written by a known Ku Klux Klansman, Asa Carter. In it, Wallace promised to protect the state’s ‘Anglo-Saxon people’ from ‘communistic amalgamation’ with blacks and ended with the line that would haunt his later efforts to enter the Democratic mainstream: ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.’ Wallace’s next signature moment came on June 11, 1963, when he mounted his ‘stand in the schoolhouse door’ to block two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Within days, it was convincingly reported that Wallace, fearing jail for defying a federal court order, had privately promised President John Kennedy that he would step aside if first allowed to make a defiant speech. Wallace’s in-state critics denounced him for a ‘charade’ that embarrassed the state.
But the cold splash of reality did not dampen his plans to use Alabama as a stepping stone to the national political arena and to the anti-Big-government speeches by which he obsessively longed to be remembered by history. Wallace talked of running for president in 1964 as a neo-Dixiecrat candidate. But he backed off when the Republican nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, came out against the bill that later became the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Goldwater’s move undercut Wallace’s trademark assertion that ‘there’s not a dime’s worth of difference’ between the two main parties on race. After the election, Wallace regretted his timidity because he thought Goldwater had run a campaign of comical ineptitude, and when 1968 came around, he invented a party, drafted the eccentric retired Air Force general Curtis LeMay as his running mate, and began draining away the lunch-pail vote from Nixon.
One reason for his success was that Wallace always campaigned ‘with the tense urgency of a squirrel,’ in the memorable description of one biographer, Marshall Frady. Another reason was that his message worked among disaffected whites everywhere, not just in the South. Wallace’s political radar had picked up signals that Rust Belt workers and urban white ethnic Americans from Boston to Baltimore felt grumpy about black students in their neighborhood schools and black competitors in the workplace. He cleaned up his language, but he used an expurgated list of demons — liberals, Communists, the Eastern press, federal judges, ‘pointy-headed intellectuals’ — to tap out in code words an updated version of his fire-hardened message from the Heart of Dixie. It was race and rage.
This blend of color prejudice and economic grievance appealed to enough voters to win him more than 13 percent of the popular vote and five states in the 1968 presidential election. In the 1972 race, he was running even stronger in the Democratic presidential primaries. He rattled the party’s establishment with a second-place finish in Wisconsin and a rapid ascent in the polls. He also won primaries in Maryland and Michigan on May 16, but got the news in a hospital bed, having been shot and paralyzed on the day before the balloting. The injury from Bremer’s bullet became a ‘thorn in my flesh,’ Wallace later said, and the truncated campaign became a thorn in his psyche. He died believing that had he not been shot, popular appeal would have forced the Democratic Party to put him on the ticket in 1972 to keep Nixon from sweeping the Sun Belt and blue-collar enclaves in the Middle West and Northeast.
Wallace ran again in 1976. From the start, aides noticed that the applause dwindled once crowds saw his shiny wheelchair. Wallace noticed it, too, and in private he disputed friends who reminded him that Franklin Roosevelt had won despite crutches and wheelchair. ‘Yeah,’ Wallace told his confidant Oscar Adams, ‘they elected Roosevelt, but they didn’t watch him on television every night getting hauled on a plane like he was half-dead.’ The death of Wallace’s presidential dream came just before the Illinois primary, when he dropped out and endorsed a more modern Southerner with no segregationist baggage, Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia.
Wallace wanted to be remembered for his shining moment in 1972 and the Main Street themes he brought to prominence. Dan Carter, a professor of history at Emory University and author of the most detailed Wallace biography, ‘The Politics of Rage,’ supports the claim. ‘It is difficult to conceive of what American politics of the 1960s, 70s and 80s would be like without George Wallace,’ Carter said in a 1994 interview. ‘I don’t think there’s a single issue that Nixon and Reagan talk of in terms of social issues that he doesn’t get to first.’ In this view, Wallace’s presidential campaigns prefigured, in an especially abrasive way, a large portion of the country’s politics of later years. Wallace was the first major political figure in his generation to exploit the antipathy toward Washington that went on to be a prime force in politics from coast to coast. He was also surely the first in his generation to galvanize the white, working-class voters later labeled as Reagan Democrats.
And he was the first nationally known politician of that generation to put such raucous emphasis on race, crime, welfare and other issues that still loom large, if less crudely, on the political landscape. After he retired as governor, Wallace used interviews to push relentlessly at the theme that he was the real inventor of Reaganism. Starting in 1979, he also undertook a campaign of apology and revisionist explanation intended to erase the word ‘racist’ from his epitaph. He argued that his early devotion to segregation was based on his reading of the Constitution and the Bible and was misinterpreted as a racist hatred of black people. ‘I made a mistake in the sense that I should have clarified my position more,’ he said in his last term as governor. ‘I was never saying anything that reflected upon black people, and I’m very sorry it was taken that way.’ That Wallace died haunted by race is appropriate to his life story — one of Faulknerian perversity embodying the old themes of guilt and a steady, if clumsy, Snopsian aspiration.
George Corley Wallace Jr. was born on Aug. 25, 1919, in Clio, Ala., a cotton town in Barbour County, where mule-drawn wagons were as common as cars on the unpaved main street. His father was the wastrel son of a beloved local doctor. His mother, Mozelle Smith Wallace, had survived abandonment by her mother and a depressing girlhood in an Episcopal orphanage at Mobile. Like his father, George Jr.
was quick with his fists and drawn to politics. Calling himself the ‘Barbour Bantam,’ he won two Golden Gloves titles while in high school. As a 15-year-old legislative page at the Capitol in Montgomery, he stood on the gold star marking the spot where Jefferson Davis was sworn as president of the Confederacy and where, by tradition, Alabama governors have taken the oath of office ever since. It was the seminal moment of his youth. Man and boy, George Wallace revered that spot, so much so that as governor he ordered state troopers to encircle it so that a visitor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, could not put a desecrating Yankee foot atop it.
It was in 1937, on the oak-shaded Tuscaloosa campus of the University of Alabama, that George Wallace began to define what he would become politically. He arrived in the same shiny suit he had worn as a page in Montgomery, but Tuscaloosa was a congenial place for poor, ambitious country boys. And by tradition, it was a virtual boot camp for future governors and senators. Young Wallace won election as president of the freshman class. He never won another student office, but his campaign to beat the fraternity machine with a coalition of independents and out-of-state students whetted his permanent taste for underdog politics.
The other leitmotifs of his Alabama career — cronyism and betrayal — emerged at the university. He acquired the hangers-on who staffed his later efforts, and he made an unlikely, but ill-fated friendship with Frank Johnson, a handsome law student from Winston County, a Unionist stronghold in northern Alabama that seceded from Alabama when Alabama left the Union. Johnson was a Republican, Wallace an ardent New Deal Democrat. Johnson joked about someday being a federal judge and Wallace about being governor. But the big wheels on campus tended to dismiss Wallace’s ambitions as comical.
For in those days, too, Wallace impressed people by his frenetic energy and tireless pugnacity rather than by any inherent attractiveness. He waited tables and drove taxis and slid through law school, cramming from borrowed books. Frank Johnson’s wife, Ruth, was worried by Wallace’s habit of chasing innocent high school girls, although she thought him more interested in the adoration than sexual conquest. Finally in 1943, at the age of 23, he decided to marry one of his naive admirers, a 16-year-old dime store clerk named Lurleen Burns. It was wartime and Mrs.
Wallace and their baby daughter, Bobbi Joe, born in 1944, followed wherever Wallace’s flight training in the Army Air Forces took him. He shipped to the Mariana Islands as a flight engineer in the spring of 1945, assigned to fly bombing missions over Japan. The biographer Dan Carter found fellow crew members who remembered Wallace’s barracks lectures defending segregation in Barbour County. ‘I don’t hate them,’ Wallace was reported to have said. ‘The colored are fine in their place. But they’re just like children, and it’s not something that’s going to change.
It’s written in stone.’ Wallace had been through nine combat missions by the time the war ended. He was discharged with a 10 percent disability for combat-induced ‘psychoneurosis,’ diagnosed after he refused orders to fly dangerous training missions when his unit returned to California after the Japanese surrender. Years later, Sen. Wayne Morse, D-Ore., disclosed Wallace’s wartime psychiatric history. Wallace responded that unlike his liberal attacker, he could prove that he was 90 percent sane.
After the war, Wallace began climbing up the political ladder with remarkable speed. Using his Barbour County con …