Whether Governor George Wallace was a racist can be debated with some success among those on both sides of the question. Whether Wallace was a good governor is one of those "depends on who you ask." Whether he would have been elected President had he not been shot is something we will never know. Was Wallace one of the most colorful and powerful figures in Alabama political history? On that question---there can be no debate.
George Wallace, Jr., son of the famous governor, has recently penned a book about the life of his dad. "Governor George Wallace: The Man You Never Knew" paints a picture that could change the way the four-term governor is perceived by some. In fact, it gives us a rare glimpse of the "Fightin' Little Governor." (He was only 5' 7'' tall.)
After a failed attempt in 1958, Wallace was elected governor in 1962. He was propelled to the office, in part, by his stanch pro-segregation stand. His Democratic opponent, former governor Jim Folsom, Sr., likely helped when he appeared drunk and incoherent on statewide television on the eve of the Democratic primary.
Wallace, upon taking office, began receiving national attention for his advocacy of segregation---a popular 1960's stand in the Deep South. "Segregation is what he believed in at one time as most Southerners did years ago. As time passed his conscience told him he had been wrong about that," claims George, Jr. "However, he was fond about saying he was right about the federal government trying to run every aspect of our lives." Wallace points to Americans' feelings toward Washington these days.
Perhaps, fairly or not, the thing Governor Wallace will best remembered for is his famous stand in the school house door. He blocked an entrance to the University of Alabama in an attempt to prevent two blacks--Vivian Malone and James Hood-- from enrolling. The National Guard was federalized and Wallace finally relented and stepped aside. Years later, he would apologize to Malone and Hood for trying to deny them.
Wallace, Jr. said his father never hated anyone and moderated his stance. "I think about his later years when he tried to bring about reconciliation among all people. I think he worried about some of his earlier positions (in which Wallace) supported segregation." Wallace even went to a church pastored by Dr. Martin Luther King to apologize. Despite his segregation stand, the governor enjoyed significant support among African-Americans.
Wallace wanted to run for re-election in 1966 but, under Alabama law, he was forbidden from seeking a second successive term. So, he offered up his wife as a surrogate candidate. Lurleen B. Wallace went on to defeat two former governors including James "Big Jim" Folsom whom her husband defeated for the job four years earlier.
George, Junior admits his father had a major influence on his wife's administration---few would deny it was his agenda she pushed. However, George, Jr. said the decision to run for governor was that of his mother. "She was in the dining room and she said I'm running George."
Junior--who is actually George Wallace III---said his mom was the "rock of the family." But, she had a political mind of her own. After she became governor, she had her own agenda including mental health reform. (However) she understood that (Governor Wallace) wanted to have a forum to get his message out to the country."
Lurleen Burns Wallace had served only 16 months when she died of cancer at the age of 41. Albert Brewer became governor---serving out the rest of Mrs. Wallace's term and then seeking his own in 1970. That set up one of the closest races in state history when Brewer faced George Wallace for the Democratic nomination.
It was not only one of the closest---it was one of the dirtiest. Previously unthinkable, Brewer courted the black vote and finished first in the primary but did not get enough votes to win without a runoff. Wallace went on the offensive using campaign tactics some found offensive. An advertisement was circulated showing a white girl surrounded by seven black men with a caption "Wake Up, Alabama." He even went as far to call Brewer "Sissy Britches." Wallace, who had campaigned unsuccessfully for President in 1964 and 1968, promised not to seek the White House again if victorious. He defeated Brewer in the runoff and, according to historical publications, headed to Wisconsin the following day to campaign for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination.
Despite Wallace's rhetoric, his son claims his father never hated anyone. "I think about his later years when he tried to bring about reconciliation among all people. I think he worried about some of his earlier positions (in which) he supported segregation at one point of his life." Wallace even went to a church pastored by Dr. Martin Luther King to apologize for his actions. Despite his segregation stand, Wallace enjoyed significant support among African-Americans.
Despite repeated attempts, Wallace never came close to becoming President but his voice was strong, especially in 1972. However, a would-be assassination would end any reasonable chance of Wallace winning the White House though he would try one last time in 1976. Before his death, Governor Wallace said he had forgiven Arthur Bremer for leaving him paralyzed as he had asked forgiveness for his segregation stand.
Wallace served four terms as governor, and may have won a fifth had he opted to run in 1986. However, declining health forced him out of the limelight. Governor George Wallace died in 1998.