By Colin Woodward
I recently started reading Dan T. Carter’s book, The Politics of Rage, which examines the life and political career of the Alabama Governor, who infamously said in 1963 that he wanted “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Wallace gained national headlines for standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama in 1963, trying in vain to prevent the integration of the college. He also ran for president several times, running most famously on a “Law and Order” platform in 1968. He was forced to live the rest of his life in a wheelchair after a failed assassination attempt wounded him during his 1972 campaign. Yet, despite being paralyzed by Arthur Bremer’s bullet, Wallace would run again in 1976 (the same year the film Taxi Driver, inspired by Bremer came out). Altogether, Wallace was governor of Alabama for sixteen years, a record unmatched except by a former governor of Iowa.
Wallace’s stamp on the history of southern politics is clear, and in Carter, he has a worthy biographer. Dan T. Carter might just be the greatest living southern historian. He has written not just about twentieth century race relations, as in his terrific Bancroft Prize-winning book Scottsboro, but the Reconstruction Era. His When the War was Over is one of the best books I’ve read on Reconstruction and the white backlash after the Civil War. Carter also has a somewhat personal connection to Wallace. He grew up in South Carolina, but he is a distant relative to Asa Earl Carter, a Klansman and speech writer to Wallace (he is also the author of the story that became the film Outlaw Josey Wales and, oddly, the children’s book, Education of Little Tree, about a Native American boy).
Carter is too good to a historian to portray Wallace purely as a race-baiting demagogue. And the Wallace story isn’t that simple. I’m only about 40 pages into the book, and Wallace has yet to enter the military during World War II. So far, there is little to suggest the future governor was ardently racist. As a young man, he grew up in a small racially-mixed town in Alabama, where he excelled at boxing (his favorite picture of himself involved him giving a gloved opponent a bloody nose) and had a lifelong thirst for politics. As was Huey Long before him, Wallace was a born hustler and politician. Unlike Long, however, he made racial politics the lynchpin of his pursuit of power. It’s that decision that is central to the Wallace story.
Back in 2000, the Alabama southern rock band Drive-By Truckers made an album called Southern Rock Opera, that uses Wallace as inspiration for a couple songs. Unlike Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (which has become a cartoonish anthem for redneck pride), the Truckers make more than a passing reference to the governor. The Truckers’ take on Alabama, furthermore, is far more nuanced than Skynyrd’s ever was. In the spoken-word song “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” the band’s chief songwriter Patterson Hood discusses Wallace’s early, fairly progressive career, which was eclipsed by his opportunistic stand for segregation, even after the Brown v. Board decision made the destruction of Jim Crow inevitable. “Icons” also examines Wallace’s conversion to a more moderate political stance, which enabled him to get a vast majority of the black vote in later gubernatorial campaigns. The Truckers dub Wallace’s appeal to so many people as example of the “duality of the southern thing.”
Even so, the Truckers talk about George Wallace being in hell (where the devil makes him some sweet tea)–not for his racism necessarily, but his sheer ambition at the expense of black civil rights. After all, not everyone who supported civil rights was racially enlightened. Could Wallace have been another LBJ, a man who grew up prejudiced but came down on the side of promoting rather than blocking civil rights? Perhaps. But Wallace didn’t, and we are left with the legacy of a man who became a spokesman for segregation.
The Wallace story is further complicated by the redefining of “conservatism” in America. Wallace was a lifelong Democrat, but his rise to power coincided with a realignment that occurred in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s. In that time, southern Democrats began migrating to the Republican Party, something helped greatly by Sunbelt conservatives Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Wallace was a creature of the Solid South, which had been strongly Democratic from the mid-19th century up through the mid-20th. But his views more closely resembled the new Republican Party. African Americans would remain Democrat after the civil rights movement, but it was the big government-based Great Society that drove so many white politicians from the Democratic fold. While many were too shrewd to allow themselves to lapse into Wallace-like language about African Americans, many learned to speak in racial code. They could, however, be much more open, as was Wallace, about being tough-on-crime stance and their evangelical faith. Today, Wallace would be a Republican.
In his book’s introduction, Carter discusses Wallace’s late life conversion to moderation and wonders how real it was. By the 1980s, many people had softened toward Wallace, a fact helped by his obviously weakened physical condition. Many people, even African Americans, seemed willing to forgive his racist past. I’m not sure if Carter will be as forgiving, but that’s something I’ll find out as I read more.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.