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George Wallace: The Great Divider

Published: 9/13/2012
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As another presidential election approaches, we remember a man who was as controversial in his time as any candidate in 2012: George Wallace, who died 14 years ago today. In 2008 on the 10th anniversary of Wallace's death, Jeff Frederick considered the evolution of his politics. (AP Photo) 

Ten years after his death, more than 20 years since he left office and decades after he became the most recognized governor in America, George Wallace's complicated legacy continues to loom over Alabama, the South and the nation at large.

Wallace is still perhaps best known as a symbol of America's resistance to the civil rights movement. Throughout the 1960s his candor and raw political acumen cast him into the role of defender of Southern traditions – namely white supremacy and segregation. But after a series of unsuccessful presidential bids and surviving a failed assassination attempt, Wallace pulled off perhaps the most astounding late career political reinvention in American history. He publicly apologized for his past, won a majority of black votes and earned a final gubernatorial term in 1982 as the most liberal candidate on the Alabama ballot.

For those who'd closely followed his evolution, perhaps the sudden about-face was not as surprising as it may first seem.

Born in sparsely populated Barbour County, Ala., Wallace learned the staples of retail politics in the rural South and dreamed of becoming governor the way some kids hope to become NFL quarterbacks. After World War II service on a bombing crew in the Pacific, Wallace turned to electoral politics first as a state legislator and then as a judge. An instinctive campaigner – Wallace wrote Christmas cards to prospective Barbour County voters while still stationed in the military – the Alabamian had gifts for remembering names and details of voters' lives and could sense the tenor of a room as soon as he entered it.

After losing the governor's race in 1958 campaigning as a moderate segregationist with the support of the NAACP, Wallace turned hard to the right on social issues. The move paid off, and he won his first gubernatorial election in 1963. During his inaugural address, he issued his most notorious statement, calling for "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Later that year, he would make his famed "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door," a symbolic effort to prevent two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling in the University of Alabama.

Alabama Gov. George Wallace makes his stand against desegregation at the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1963. History went full circle Thursday, Oct. 10, 1996, when Wallace helped honor a black woman for standing up to him 33 years ago. (AP Photo/Montgomery Advertiser, File)

Alabama Gov. George Wallace makes his stand against desegregation at the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1963. History went full circle Oct. 10, 1996, when Wallace helped honor a black woman for standing up to him 33 years ago. (AP Photo / Montgomery Advertiser)

Raucous orator and master of political theater, he was fearlessly candid but also capable of tailoring his remarks to his audience, be they farmers and housewives at a county fair in rural Alabama, an antagonistic crowd of liberal Ivy League intellectuals, or a group of New Yorkers at packed Madison Square Garden. Though his speeches were often awash in vague generalities, the aplomb with which they were delivered showed first-class political stagecraft.

During the tumultuous 1960s, Wallace would become the most popular and powerful governor in Alabama history, so popular that his first wife Lurleen won the 1966 gubernatorial election as a virtual stand-in candidate (at the time, Wallace was constitutionally forbidden from winning his own consecutive term). When it came to actually governing, however, he was generally disinterested in policy. Many of Alabama's current problems related to education, tax reform, prisons and economic development date back to the time Wallace took office.

Using his regional popularity as a springboard, Wallace ran for president in every election from 1964 to 1976. Though he never came close to winning, the Alabama governor was an influential force in reshaping the political landscape in ways that still reverberate. A lifelong Democrat, he nonetheless castigated the party as being too liberal and pro-big government – claims still echoed by speakers at the Republican National Convention of 2008. Wallace's criticisms were a contributing factor in the white Southern migration to Republican ranks, a political remapping that still presents a challenge to the Democrats.

Wallace's 1968 presidential bid is the one he's best remembered for. Running as a third-party candidate on the American Independent Party ticket, his vociferous opposition to busing efforts designed to achieve racial balance were well received by whites across the country, as were his cries for "law and order" – interpreted by some to be thinly veiled code words championing a racist society.

Wallace also honed a simplistic philosophy on the Vietnam War that resonated with some Americans: win or get out. Wallace won five Southern states and 46 electoral votes, nearly won two other states, and garnered more than 13 percent of the national vote. By this point he was too controversial, too much the pariah to ever be a serious contender for president, but many of his ideas eventually became staples of successful Republican candidates including Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

Undeterred, Wallace entered the race again 1972. The campaign would prove to be costly. While stumping in Maryland to be the Democratic party standard-bearer, Wallace was shot five times by a frustrated malcontent named Arthur Bremer (inspiration for the 1976 film Taxi Driver, whose Travis Bickle was loosely based on him).

For the remaining 26 years of his life, Wallace was paralyzed, in chronic pain, in the throes of recurrent abdominal infections and increasingly blind and deaf. Despite the incapacitation, Wallace ran for president again in 1976 and was briefly considered a front-runner primarily because of name recognition, but found himself unable to match the momentum created by another Southern governor, Georgia's Jimmy Carter.

Wallace was many things: regional symbol of the white South, influential presidential candidate, segregationist, Alabama governor for a quarter of a century, repentant paraplegic, feisty campaigner. Those who loved him and those who loathed him – there was no middle ground – can agree on one thing: they remember him. His symbolism, the hate of a divided South and the hope of a united one, looms large over a state still reconciling its tortured racial past, a region trying to move beyond old wounds, and a nation caught up in a political divide between Red and Blue.

Written by Jeff Frederick

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