George Corley Wallace, the onetime firebrand segregationist who dominated Alabama politics for almost two decades and commanded a front-stage position during the nation’s tumultuous civil rights struggles, died Sunday of respiratory and cardiac arrest. He was 79.
Wallace, a former four-term Democratic governor who rose to power with a blend of virulent racism and pugnacious opposition to big government and liberal social philosophies, became a political hero to millions of working-class white Southern voters and gained an impressive national following during his four abortive campaigns for the White House as the “angry man’s candidate.”
Although he moderated his hard-right stance later in his political career and publicly recanted his segregationist past, the onetime Golden Gloves boxing champion never shook off the image of jut-jawed defiance to racial change that he created in the early 1960s with his cry of “segregation forever” in his first inaugural address and with his controversial “stand in the schoolhouse door” to block the integration of the University of Alabama.
Since 1972, when a would-be assassin’s bullets cut short the most promising of his presidential campaigns and left him paralyzed from the waist down, Wallace had been confined to a wheelchair and suffered from steadily declining health. In 1986, fighting almost constant pain and depression along with increasing deafness, he rejected a bid for an unprecedented fifth term as governor and retired from active political life, saying in a tearful farewell at the State Capitol: “I’ve climbed my last political mountain.”
Wallace entered Jackson Hospital in Montgomery on Thursday, suffering from breathing problems and septic shock caused by a severe bacterial infection. In a statement, the hospital reported that Wallace “gave up his valiant battle with life at 9:45 p.m.”
Wallace’s son, George Wallace Jr., and one of his daughters, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, were at his side when he died. He is also survived by two other daughters, Bobbie Joe and Janie Lee.
Wallace, a bushy-browed, knobby-nosed man with a thick drawl who began his political career as a state representative from rural Barbour County in southeastern Alabama, was a complex and charismatic figure who left behind a mixed political legacy, spanning Southern history from the years of segregation to the new era of biracial politics.
From the State Capitol, Wallace dominated Alabama politics as no one had before him in this century, winning four-year terms as governor in 1962, 1970, 1974 and 1982. He also controlled the governor’s mansion during the administration of his first wife, Lurleen, who was elected as Alabama’s only woman governor in 1966 but who died in office of cancer two years later.
Over much of the same period, the feisty, outspoken Wallace also made four unsuccessful runs for the presidency: as a Democrat in 1964, 1972 and 1976, and as a third-party candidate representing the American Independent Party in 1968.
His third-party presidential campaign was the most successful one in American history in more than half a century, with Wallace garnering nearly 10 million votes, or about 13% of the total, and carrying five states, all in the South. In 1972, Wallace was a contender for the Democratic Party’s nomination before Arthur Bremer fired five shots into his midsection during a May campaign appearance at a shopping center in Laurel, Md.
Wallace carried the Maryland and Michigan primaries while lying near death in the hospital, but his career as a presidential aspirant was effectively ended. In 1976, when he launched his final presidential bid, he was woefully outdistanced by another Southerner, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who won the Democratic nomination and went on to capture the White House from the Republican incumbent, Gerald R. Ford.
By the end of his final term as governor in 1986, Wallace’s political appeal in Alabama appeared to be seriously waning, largely because of fears about his health. Wallace also was coming under increasing criticism for his failure to move Alabama into the Sun Belt economic boom.
His retirement from politics produced a fierce internecine feud in the state Democratic Party over who should get the chance to succeed Wallace in 1986. That resulted in the defection of Democratic voters to the GOP candidate, Guy Hunt, a cattleman and former Amway salesman. Hunt, who previously had not held any political office higher than county probate judge, became the first Republican to win the governorship since Reconstruction.
“Alabama was on a more progressive road than most people think in the late 1940s and ‘50s because of the influence of Gov. Jim Folsom. But when Wallace came along and embraced racism and used it as a political tool, it just twisted this state in a whole different direction,” said Wayne Greenhaw of Montgomery, author of a titled “Watch Out for George Wallace.”
When Wallace himself was asked how history will record him, he told The Times in 1979: “I would say in contemporary history, I’d like to be remembered as one of those who destroyed the mythology that somebody from a region of the country couldn’t run in other regions because there was a regional bias and prejudice. . . .
“And in the next 50, 60, 70 years, when they write about third parties, they will write that we had the most successful, as of this date, third-party movement in the country.”
He maintained that view until his death, seeing himself as a precursor to Jimmy Carter and to the dramatic shift to a conservative national political agenda with the election of Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980.
In his later years, Wallace also asserted that he had not been “an enemy of blacks” in the 1960s and ‘70s but “the enemy of the federal government.”
“It’s very unfortunate that it involved race when we raised those issues,” he explained. “I was never saying anything that reflected on black people, and I’m sorry it was taken that way.”
But Dan T. Carter, an Emory University history professor and Wallace biographer, says that it is difficult to be sympathetic with Wallace on that score because the former governor “used the power of the state to maim, manipulate and hurt people.”
Wallace was born on Aug. 24, 1919, in the southeastern Alabama town of Clion, one of four children. His mother taught music at a country schoolhouse and his father was a cotton farmer who also briefly was Barbour County board of revenue chairman before he died in 1937, at age 40.
At 15, he went to Montgomery, introduced himself to legislators and talked his way into a part-time job--as a page in the Alabama Senate.
When he enrolled at the University of Alabama later, he studied law but also worked at odd jobs to help his fatherless family cope with the Depression.
Wallaced played freshman baseball, but he was far more adept at boxing. He was was a two-time Golden Gloves state champion.
One of his most memorable bouts occurred outside the ring. At a Golden Gloves tournament in Birmingham, Wallace and several companions broke up a scuffle in which a group of white youths had ganged up on a black man. “I just considered it a routine matter,” Wallace said of the incident. “I don’t like to see anyone mistreated.”
Wallace graduated from the university in May, 1942, and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He advanced from airplane mechanic to flight engineer in B-29 bombers, flying 10 missions over Japan near the end of World War II.
Wallace married for the first time while he was on leave in May, 1943. His wife, Lurleen, was a gentle, smiling woman whom he had met seven months earlier when she worked as a dime-store clerk in Tuscaloosa.
Wallace went to work in 1946 as an aide in the Alabama attorney general’s office. Two months later, he took a leave of absence to run for state representative from Barbour County and, after winning the election, was sworn into the Legislature in January, 1947.
As a legislator, Wallace was branded a “dangerous liberal” by some of his colleagues, many of whom were chummy with upper-crust society. But Wallace tired of legislative work, quit at age 33 and was elected a state district court judge in 1952.
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 reportedly 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 a century before, 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 at the schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama later 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 voting rights activists, a confrontation that ended in a bloody melee.
Sought to Amend Constitution
In 1966, when his first term was soon to end, Wallace tried to persuade the Legislature to amend the Constitution so that he could succeed himself. Failing that, he convinced his wife, Lurleen, to run for governor as a surrogate for him. She won resoundingly, but it was evident that her husband ran things.
She died in May, 1968, after several cancer operations and was succeeded as governor by Lt. Gov. Albert P. Brewer, from whom Wallace reclaimed the governorship in 1970.
Meanwhile, Wallace embarked on his first presidential bid in 1964, campaigning in a handful of Democratic presidential primaries. In 1968, he embarked again on the presidential campaign trail. It was a year of social upheaval, political assassinations and polarization over the Vietnam War. Wallace seized on these issues and ran as an independent candidate, speaking out for law and order, a hard-line national defense and fiscal conservatism.
At the same time, Wallace repeatedly insisted he harbored no ill feelings toward blacks.
In 1971, two weeks before his second inauguration as governor, Wallace married his second wife, Cornelia Snively, the divorced niece of former Gov. Folsom and 19 years Wallace’s junior. The following year, he attempted a third try for the presidency, scoring well until the assassination attempt.
When he was shot by Bremer at the rally in Laurel, Wallace slumped to the pavement of a parking lot, his blue shirt splotched with blood and Cornelia sobbing as she fell atop him.
Bremer remains in prison, serving a 53-year term for the shooting. His sentence will expire in May 2025.
Paralyzed below the waist and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Wallace doggedly pursued his political dreams. He was reelected to a third term as governor with virtually no opposition and then set out for the presidency a fourth time, only to be thwarted by Carter.
Wallace and Cornelia were divorced in 1978 after stormy proceedings that grew out of charges and countercharges of bedroom tape recordings.
Unable to succeed himself for a third straight term in 1978, he began a four-year retirement from politics by working as an administrator for the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
In 1981, he married his third wife, Lisa Taylor. The following year he won an unprecedented fourth term as governor, saying he was wrong about segregation and winning enough of the crucial black vote to capture the Democratic primary runoff.
In May of 1986, Wallace declined to run for a fifth term. Almost a year later, he divorced his third wife.
Wallace, meanwhile, worked as a consultant for Troy State University but continued to suffer from deteriorating health, being bedridden for most of the time.
For many Alabamians, Wallace remains a legendary figure. As an Alabama state trooper once told an out-of-state reporter: “Look, fella, I want you to know there ain’t but three people can walk on water--Jesus Christ, Bear Bryant (the late University of Alabama football coach) and George Wallace.”
J.R. Moehringer, the Times bureau chief in Atlanta, contributed to this story.