George Corley Wallace was born in Clio, Barbour County, Alabama, to George C. and Mozelle Wallace. Clio is a rural southeastern county famous for producing politicians. Wallace was registered to vote in Barbour County his entire life. The Klan had a major presence in Barbour County throughout Wallace's life. In 1935, Wallace served as a page in the Alabama Senate. He was a bantamweight boxer and good at it. At the age of 18 in 1937, Wallace enrolled at the University of Alabama Law School. He was elected president of his freshman class, and in 1942 earned a law degree. .
That year, he met 16-year-old Lurleen Burns. After graduating, he enrolled in the U.S. Army Air Force. Spinal meningitis caused him to slip into a coma for a week. After recovering, he went on leave and married Lurleen. In 1944, their first daughter, Bobbi Jo, was born.
In 1945, now recovered from his illness, Wallace was ready to go into Officer Candidate School. However, his goal was to enter politics back home, and he made the calculation that more voters would be former enlisted personnel than officers. He opted out of the officer corps for a training program as a flight engineer.
Wallace flew nine combat missions over Japan before being medically discharged for chronic "severe anxiety." In 1946 he won his first election as a representative of Barbour County in the Alabama legislature. Much in the tradition of Louisiana populist Huey Long, Wallace was progressive and liberal in his dealings with and treatment of black Alabamans.
In 1948, Wallace won a seat as an alternate delegate to the Democrat Convention in Philadelphia. He opposed President Truman's Civil Rights Program, but did not support Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats. In 1949 he was appointed to the Board of Trustees of Tuskegee Institute, a move he sought to actively court black votes. The record shows that while Wallace was a pure politician, he was moderate at a time and in a place where moderation in racial affairs was rare indeed.
In the 1950s, two more children were born to the Wallace family. He was elected judge in the Third Judicial Circuit Court. His nickname was "the fightin' little judge" in reference to his boxing days.
In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court called for an end to segregation in public schools in their ruling via Brown vs. The Board of Education. A year later Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery. Alabama's reaction was to outlaw the NAACP. When the Supreme Court ruled that buses must be integrated, Wallace found his moderate views to be out of step with the electorate. In 1958, incumbent John Patterson defeated him in Alabama's Democrat gubernatorial primary. Republicans were virtually non-existent in the Jim Crow South, a fact not unnoticed by two young citizens of the region at that time, Condoleeza Rice and Clarence Thomas.
The Klan backed Patterson while Wallace spoke out against the KKK, even after they offered its support. The "outlawed" NAACP endorsed Wallace. He lost by more than 64,000 votes. His infamous post-mortem was, "I'll never be out-niggered again."
In 1959 Wallace re-invented himself as a hardcore segregationist, refused to cooperate with the Civil Rights Commission designed to investigate voting rights abuses, and opposed Eisenhower's Federal attempts at reform. He surrendered local voting records to avoid jail time, but only after making his point.
In 1961, Janie Lee, the Wallace's fourth child, was born. She was named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee. A year later, running as a pro-segregation, pro-states' rights candidate, Wallace was elected Governor of Alabama by a landslide. His inaugural speech vaulted him into the national spotlight and infamy. Asa Carter, the founder of a KKK terrorist organization, wrote his "segregation now, segregation forever" speech.
In an ironic twist that falls into "only in America," 10 years later Carter moved to Texas, assumed the identity of Native American Forrest Carter, and wrote his "autobiography," "The Education of Little Tree".
Wallace became the face of the new segregationist South. On NBC's "Meet the Press," he discussed court-ordered integration of the University of Alabama. Wallace disabused the notion that he was a "wild-eyed" Southern bigot, ignorant and violent. He had supporters throughout the country, and not all of them were bigots. His call for states' rights and desire to keep the Federals out of his business struck a cord with conservatives and libertarians. Many excused his racial views in favor of his independence. He was a rebel in the Southern tradition, and he knew exactly what he was doing.
On June 11, 1963, Wallace stood in front of the admissions building at the
University of Alabama to block two black students from legally enrolling at the university. The footage of the event was broadcast on national television. It made him a hero to a few and a villain to many. As Tip O'Neill once said, "all politics is local." Wallace was a hero to the white voters of Alabama, who he cared about. He had taken his stand strictly for show, knowing he could not stop the entrance into the school.
The next day, NAACP worker Medgar Evers was murdered by white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith in Mississippi. On August 28, Dr. King delivered his "I have a dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial to the 250,000 people gathered for the peaceful "March on Washington."
On September 15, 1963, the KKK bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Four African-American girls died in the blast. Condi Rice knew them. The event sparked armed conflict and galvanizes the Civil Rights Movement. On
November 22, Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy in Dallas. President Johnson quickly called for integration in the South.
In 1964, with war just starting in North Vietnam, Wallace entered the Democrat Presidential Primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland, and Indiana, winning approximately one-third of the vote. His main planks were states' rights and anti-Communism.
On March 7, 1965, "Bloody Sunday," voting rights advocates marched from Selma to the state capital. Wallace ordered state troopers to hold them back with tear gas, clubs, and extreme violence.
A second Selma-to-Montgomery march was undertaken a couple weeks later under Federal protection. More than 25,000 marched to the Alabama Capitol Building to ask Wallace to allow black voter registration. The 15th Amendment prohibited racial discrimination in voting, but state laws and practices had been placed as roadblocks. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Bill a few months later.
Wallace tried to get the Alabama state legislature to draw up an amendment to allow a sitting Governor to run for a second term, then forbidden. Unable to muster the votes, his wife, Lurleen, ran as his stand-in. She was quickly diagnosed with cancer, but ran anyway. Lurleen Wallace was elected Governor of Alabama in a landslide victory in 1966, with her husband the de facto Governor.
In 1968, Wallace decided to run for President again. Dr. King was assassinated, and on May 6 Lurleen Wallace succumbed to cancer in office. Five weeks later, Wallace launched his anti-liberal American Independent party campaign. He shifted the focus from race to Communism following the passage of the Voting Rights Bill. Wallace asked conservative actor John Wayne to be his Vice-Presidential running mate, but The Duke was not a racist. General "Bombs away with" Curtis LeMay agreed to do it. LeMay had been the man behind the Dresden firebombings, had advocated invasion of Cuba in 1962, and was strongly pro-nuclear weapons. LeMay did not understand populist politics and did not help Wallace.
Wallace's presence in the race was the key to Nixon's Southern strategy. Critics have said that Nixon played racial politics, presenting himself as acceptable to white voters who wanted their vote to count. Nixon may have soft-pedaled the racial angle, but his strong anti-Communist credentials and plan for Vietnam were what gave him much of the electorate below the Mason-Dixon Line. However, Wallace took five states away from Nixon. In an election in which Nixon barely hung on to defeat Hubert Humphrey,
Wallace carried enough electoral votes to throw the election to the House of Representatives.
In 1970, Wallace was elected Governor again. President Nixon opposed him by backing incumbent Albert Brewer in the Democrat primary, and launching an IRS investigation of illegalities in the Wallace campaign. A Gallup poll showed Wallace to be the seventh most admired man in America, just ahead of the Pope.
In 1971, Wallace married Cornelia Snively two weeks before his inauguration. She urged him to soften his rhetoric and show a more sophisticated side. Shortly after, Wallace told reporters he had never believed in segregation.
In 1972, Wallace entered the Democrat Primaries. In Florida, Wallace defeated George McGovern, Humphrey, and nine other Democrats by an overwhelming majority, carrying every county in the state.
While campaigning in Maryland on May 15, Wallace was shot by 21-year-old Arthur Bremer, paralyzing him below the waist. Bremer's diary showed that he was motivated not by politics, but by a desire for fame. Despite the shooting, Wallace won in Maryland, Michigan, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
On July 7, confined to a wheelchair, he spoke at the Democrat National Convention in Miami. The party virtually imploded from within. In the end they chose the "poet-socialist" former fighter plot, George McGovern. He was completely overwhelmed by Nixon in November.
Wallace served out his Governorship, dispensing generous social programs. The shooting changed him, and he became a "born again" Christian, appearing on Jerry Falwell's "The Old-Time Gospel Hour." After Watergate, Wallace tried for the Democrat nomination in 1976, but his health and public image doomed his chances. He lost Florida and North Carolina to Jimmy Carter. The New South had risen and with it, old Wallace had fallen. Wallace endorsed Carter, trying to paint a picture of himself as making it possible for a Southerner to be elected to the White House.
George and Cornelia Wallace had a nasty separation and divorced. After a few years away from the limelight, Wallace made a phone call to civil rights leader John Lewis. Wallace had fully accepted Christ, and asked Lewis' forgiveness. Lewis and many African- Americans accepted his repentance.
In 1982, Wallace again won the Alabama gubernatorial election, this time with a large black majority. He appointed a record number of blacks to government positions, establishing the Wallace Coalition, which included the Alabama Education Association, organized labor, black political organizations, and trial lawyers. He addressed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and said his segregation past was "wrong." In 1986 he finally retired from politics.
In 1996, Vivian Malone Jones, one of the black students Wallace tried to stop from enrolling at the University of Alabama in 1963, received an award honoring her courage from a foundation bearing Wallace's name. He died two years later at 79.
Only Wallace, and those closest to him perhaps, could truly say what was in his heart, and whether it was genuine Christian charity that led to his repentance, or the desire to gain votes in a changing age. Likely, it was a little of both. Either way, by "changing," Wallace led the way for many others to change, too. For this reason, his final tally is a big comeback over what it would have been had he simply held the old line.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism