George Corley Wallace, you old tease. How sweet it must be for the new governor of Alabama to count among his considerable accomplishments the snookering of a nation served by three major television networks, The New York Times and the Republican Party Truth Squad. For it turns out that Wallace was never what he pretended—never the night-riding, hell-raising, thrill-a-minute prophet of discord and dementia who, eyes darting and lips curled, invited apocalypse. Rather, George Wallace was just a fellow striving for acceptance, a poor old country boy trying to get himself elected. Nor were his memorable lectures on race relations and the origin of the species intended as a disparagement of his black brothers. You don’t mean to say folks believed all that talk?
This time around Gov. George is so civilized he seems sedated. His inaugural address last month was an ode to brotherhood, his first initiatives positively beatific. Wallace named two blacks to his cabinet and lobbied for the appointment of several others to influential legislative posts. “In times like these,” said Wallace after being sworn in for a fourth term, “we must turn to one another and not away from and against one another.”
Is it meanspirited to recall that 20 years before, when he took the oath for the first time, George Corley Wallace advanced a social doctrine significantly at odds with the 1983 version? “I draw the line and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny,” Wallace roared then, “and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
The sentiment of the 1963 speech may have been disreputable, but the syntax was far superior to Wallace’s latest effort. Powerful nouns (gauntlet, tyranny, segregation), arresting verbs (draw, toss), echoing phrases (segregation now . . . tomorrow . . . forever) provided the requisite roll of Wagnerian thunder for the governor’s melancholy theme. He was Johnny Reb—remorseless, belligerent, ready for a rumble. Down here, brother, we do things different. Down here you don't come 'round talkin' equality and integration. Down here you watch yo 'self, boy. To attend one of his rallies was to feel amperage in the arteries. He was terrifying, electrical, a storm field in which lightning forever flashed. It was socko stuff, superb theatre. We should have known all along.
At 63, Wallace is not a rascal anymore. Gunfire brought the governor down during his 1972 presidential campaign, and the wound torments him a decade later. His side hurts—Wallace reaches for the spot periodically, kneads it, frowns at the familiar twinge—and his legs fail him. He cannot strut, cannot swagger, stalk across the floor and release the passions of a trembling mob. Even when standing up for America, Wallace must remain seated.
Once assertive and incendiary, he now seems tentative and mild. His hearing is poor, his voice soft. Snarling seems too strenuous and certainly out of place. The man obviously is not in the mood for Götterdämmerung, not at all. When he discusses race relations he seems a sweet and kindly soul (minister? social worker?) whose fondest dream is that Americans, black and white, settle their differences and
*George Wallace is not a rascal anymore. Once assertive and incendiary, he now seems tentative and mild ’
march toward the next century arm in arm, humming a favorite anthem of liberation.
Compassionate and benevolent, he extols the dignity of all work, of all people, all races, creeds, nationalities. He presents himself as a humble son of the soil who grieves for his battered homeland. Alabama, he knows, is in deep trouble. Steel mills are closing, tire factories have cut back. Per capita income is among the lowest in the country. Unemployment is 15.3 per cent. During his campaign Wallace told supporters that he could help. He still had influence in high places, he insisted. His name still opened doors. Alabama needed George Wallace, he said. His needs Wallace didn’t mention.
Bygones being bygones, Wallace was sent back to the state house after a four-year absence. He received enormous support last fall from black voters who distrusted the conservative Republican candidate, Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmar, and who saw in Wallace a chastened man. “We blacks,” said a minister in Montgomery, “have great faith in the process of redemption.”
Maybe Wallace does, too. “Some of you have summoned me in your weakness,” he said at the inaugural. “Now all of you must sustain me by your strength.” One may sigh at the words, at the arduous human journey undertaken and endured. The politics of resurrection prevail. The prodigal returns. Wonders never cease.
Yet something must be said for the past. Something said for the four black children who died when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was ripped by a bomb eight months into Wallace’s first administration. For Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston who was beaten to death in Selma while participating in a 1965 civil rights drive. For another volunteer, Viola Liuzzo of Detroit, mother of five, murdered the same year while driving between Selma and Montgomery. For Lurleen Wallace, George’s first of three wives, a quiet woman in questionable health whom George urged upon the electorate because he could not succeed himself for a second term. Lurleen ran and won in 1966 and then, after 16 months as George’s surrogate, died of cancer.
Wrenching events, perhaps, but somehow Wallace carried on. Did he ever! During his 1968 presidential campaign, Gov. George came to New York for a rally at Madison Square Garden. His followers jammed the hall, and Wallace burst upon them with a sound and a fury that sent tremors into the bedrock of Manhattan. Given their franchise, the faithful hooted and brawled. They assaulted demonstrators scattered around the auditorium and, flags unfurled, pledged allegiance to the man who said that he would make America decent again. Later, a young clergyman who had been watching the spectacle found a pay phone on his way out of the arena. When he tried to speak, his voice broke. “It was just as mother and dad described in Germany in the 1930s he told the person on the other end. “Just the same.”
The George Corley Wallace who rocketed across the Garden stage is gone. Instead, we see a fellow sitting quietly in his wheelchair, offering us peace. No accounting need be made, no penance for past inequities, no further explanations. That earlier George Corley Wallace did not so much retire after 20 years of service, he escaped.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
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