A Tearful Wallace Bows Out of Race and Political Life
Gov. George C. Wallace, the one-time segregationist firebrand who has dominated Alabama politics for nearly a quarter-century, from the turbulent civil rights era to the Sun Belt boom, announced tearfully Wednesday that he will not seek a fifth term.
“I feel that I must say I’ve climbed my last political mountain,” the four-time candidate for President told a packed crowd in the same House chamber where he served in his first elected state office in 1947.
Wallace, 66, has been beset both by ill health and declining political popularity in statewide public opinion polls. The governor, who has been hospitalized seven times since winning a fourth term in 1982, said the assassination attempt by Arthur H. Bremer in 1972 that left him paralyzed from the waist down had taken its toll.
“These five bullets gave me a thorn in the flesh,” he said. “I prayed that it would be removed, but it was not.”
Wallace’s announcement rang down the curtain on one of the South’s most enduring political dramas and leaves a crowded field of challengers for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
The charismatic governor, who built a reputation as an indefatigable campaigner and astute politician who managed to change with the changing times, has kept his state guessing for months about whether he would try to remain in the white-columned governor’s mansion for another four years.
Up until the moment of his announcement, speculation was rampant that he would go against the odds and seek reelection this year.
‘We Luv Our Guv’
His announcement drew an overflow audience of political officials, state workers, community leaders and reporters to the ornate House chamber in the Alabama State House. Many of his supporters carried signs and wore buttons saying: “We Luv Our Guv.”
Tears welled in Wallace’s eyes and his voice grew choked with emotion as he announced that he would be stepping down after this term.
“I must realize as Peter the Great did that it is time to lay aside that which we can never return to, and think about the future,” Wallace said. “And now, as I conclude, I tell you my heart will always belong to Alabama. But as far as the governmental and political arena, my fellow Alabamians, I bid you a fond and thankful farewell.”
“It’s the end of an era,” said Al LaPierre, executive director of the state Democratic Party. “He’s an amazing political story. He came full circle, from segregation in the ‘60s to winning his last election with the black vote.”
Wallace was elected to four-year terms as governor in 1962, 1970, 1974 and 1982. His first wife, Lurleen, was elected in 1966 when he could not legally succeed himself. She died in office in 1968, when Wallace was making the second of his four runs for the presidency.
Praise From Ex-NAACP Chief
E. D. Nixon, former state NAACP president and a prime mover behind the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott that catapulted slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence, said: “Gov. Wallace has done more for black people than any governor we have ever had. I still believe he could have made it if he had decided to run.”
Lewis Spratt, a 65-year-old black state legislator from Birmingham, said he believed in Wallace’s professed conversion from the fiery race-baiter who declared “segregation forever” at his 1963 inaugural address to the racial moderate who expressed concern for citizens of all races at his last swearing-in in 1983.
“I don’t think he was as mean as he seemed in those segregation days,” Spratt said. “But the only way to get into the governor’s office then and begin to help people was to holler: ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger!”
Nevertheless, the bushy-brow, knobby-nose governor--who lays claim to the most successful third-party presidential campaign in more than half a century--has left a bitter legacy.
Alabama Progress Assailed
“He leaves behind a state with a reputation blackened by the events of the ‘60s,” said William Barnard, a prominent University of Alabama political historian. “It’s true Alabama is part and parcel of the Sun Belt, but if you look at the number of jobs created in Alabama compared with Florida or South Carolina, the state hasn’t done so well. It’s one of the shadiest spots in the Sun Belt.”
Barnard said that Wallace also leaves behind an uncertain political landscape.
“A couple of political generations have been denied their rightful place on the stage because he has dominated Alabama politics for so long,” he said. “There was an impulse for change here after the turmoil of the ‘60s and ‘70s to get beyond the politics of confrontation and race--as many Southern states did. But Alabama delayed that by electing Wallace.”
Wallace began his political career as a state representative from poor cotton-chopping Barbour County, in southeastern Alabama on the Georgia line, where his father owned several small tenant farms.
He was elected a state district court judge in 1952, earning widespread support for his defiance of a federal court order to produce voting records in 1956.
Lost to White Racist
He first ran for governor in 1958 as a liberal candidate, with the endorsement of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and Alabama’s Jewish community. But he suffered a jolting defeat at the hands of John Patterson, an avowed white racist.
“John Patterson out-niggered me,” he told a roomful of political cronies after his embittering loss, “and boys, I’m not going to be out-niggered again.”
Four years later, he was elected to his first term as governor. In his inaugural address on the same spot where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy, Wallace sounded the clarion call of the segregationist South: “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. And I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
He attempted to carry out that pledge with his “stand in the schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama that year to block the enrollment of two black students, but federal troops eventually prevailed and the students were admitted. Two years later he ordered state troopers to block the Selma to Montgomery march by black voting rights activists, a confrontation that ended in a bloody melee.
‘Angry Man’s Candidate’
As the “angry man’s candidate” on the American Independent party ticket in 1968, he supported law-and-order issues, condemned urban riots and protest demonstrations and called for more local control of government. He managed to roll up 9.9 million votes, about 13% of the total, and received 45 electoral votes from five states, all in the South.
But in his last race for governor, he recanted his segregationist ways, saying once: “I was not an enemy of blacks in those days. I was the enemy of the federal government, big government.”
He has also said that his heart was broken by the deaths of blacks in the turbulent riots and bombings in the civil rights period.
Wallace had led most of the early polls for this year’s gubernatorial race. But the results began to change following his five-hour operation last July in Denver to relieve the sometimes incapacitating pain from the spinal cord damage sustained in the assassination attempt.
Ran Third in Poll
A poll, commissioned by a coalition of businesses and conducted the first week in February, showed Wallace in third place, behind Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley and former Gov. Fob James as voters showed concern about his health problems.
The survey, which also matched the Democratic candidates in two-man races, showed Baxley winning every pair and Wallace losing every one--even when pitted against his former press secretary, Billy Joe Camp, who resigned in January to join the crowded field of would-be Wallace successors.