After pledging “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” in his 1963 inaugural address, Alabama Governor George Wallace gained national notoriety by standing at the entrance to the University of Alabama to denounce the enrollment of two African American students. Martin Luther King described Wallace as “perhaps the most dangerous racist in America today” (King, “Interview”). In a 1965 interview King said: “I am not sure that he believes all the poison that he preaches, but he is artful enough to convince others that he does” (King, “Interview”).
Wallace was born on 25 August 1919, in Clio, Alabama. The son of a farmer, he worked his way through the University of Alabama, earning his law degree in 1942. After a brief time in the Air Force, Wallace returned to Alabama to work as the state’s assistant attorney general. He was elected to the state legislature in 1947, and served as a district judge from 1953 to 1959. In his early political career he maintained a moderate stance on integration; but after losing his first gubernatorial campaign to a candidate who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, Wallace became an outspoken defender of segregation. In 1962 Wallace won the governorship on a segregationist platform, receiving the largest vote of any gubernatorial candidate in Alabama’s history until that time.
In June 1963 Wallace fulfilled a campaign promise to stand in the schoolhouse door rather than accede to federal orders to integrate Alabama schools. Wallace blocked black students Vivian Malone and James Hood from entering the University of Alabama, but yielded when President John F. Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard to ensure their entrance. Three months later violence in the city erupted, concluding in the murder of four young black girls in a bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. King, who had been in Birmingham to desegregate public facilities, felt that Wallace’s actions contributed to the violence in the city. Writing to President Kennedy in September 1963, King lamented: “A reign of terror continues in Birmingham. The atmosphere of violence and lawlessness has been fomented and created by the irresponsible actions of Governor George Wallace who persists in violating federal fiat in arrogant and blatant defiance.” King warned Kennedy that if he did not “use the influence of [his] high office,” Birmingham would “see the worst race riot in our [nation’s] history” (King, 5 September 1963). Similar confrontations, repeated in other cities, bolstered Wallace’s reputation. His first term was also marked by the violent responses of Alabama authorities to voting rights demonstrations in Selma, Alabama.
Wallace’s position on civil rights and his anti-Washington rhetoric appealed not only to southern segregationists, but also to voters in other parts of the country. In 1964 he entered the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland and made a strong showing in all three states, drawing up to 43 percent of the vote. In 1968 he launched a full-fledged national campaign for the presidency. Running as a third-party candidate, he won five southern states and 10 million votes, half of them from outside the South.
During Wallace’s third bid for the presidency in 1972, an assassination attempt left him paralyzed below the waist and ended his campaign. He was eventually able to return to his duties as governor, and was reelected to a third term in 1974. As the black vote became more influential in Alabama, Wallace began to shift his stance on racial issues. After renouncing his former views on segregation and seeking reconciliation with civil rights leaders such as Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and John Lewis, he won a fourth term as governor in 1982 with substantial support from African Americans. Wallace died in Montgomery on 13 September 1998 at the age of 79.
Carter, Politics of Rage, 2000.
King, Interview by Alex Haley, Playboy (January 1965): 65–68; 70–74; 76–78.
King and Fred L. Shuttlesworth to Kennedy, 5 September 1963, JFKWHCSF-MBJFK.
Lesher, George Wallace, 1994.