The Wallace Phenomenon
By Dale Russakoff
Vol. 1, No. 5, 1979, pp. 7-9
Perhaps a rosy-cheeked, 18-year-old beauty said it best when she pushed toward the center of attention at “George Wallace Appreciation Day” in Montgomery recently.
The crowd around him was hugging, kissing and praising the frail, outgoing governor, who reached out from his wheelchair with both hands to grab them, calling most of them by name.
Finally, the girl pushed forward and threw her arms around his neck. “I love you, Gov. Wallace,” she blurted out. “You’re the only governor I’ve ever known.”
A beaming Wallace squeezed the pretty girl’s hand. “Don’t you worry, honey,” he reassured her. “I’ll be around a while.”
There is now a generation of Alabamans who have known no other word for governor than Wallace. Love him or hate him, they have had to take him personally, for he has become part of their imagination and identity as well as their history.
Monday, January 15, 1979, George Corley Wallace at 59 became a private citizen for the first time in almost 23 years, including 12 years as governor and two when his wife was governor and he ran the show.
He seems to blot out his predecessors in the memories of those Alabamans in or around their 20s, who in fact have lived under other governors. More than a governor, he was like a force his boiling image constantly on television; his rousing, revivalistic tones on the radio; the hate, love, fear and belief that he stirred throughout the country.
The faithful who came to the Montgomery coliseum to bid Wallace farewell that weekend didn’t seem to know his secret. Some said with confidence that he was a great conservative, but others called him a liberal and still another,” a populist, pure and simple.”
There was one common thread, though. Almost everyone around Wallace that day described him in personal terms, and most used the word “love.”
That is the way Wallace is asking to be remembered not as a man who left waves of hatred in his wake, certainly not as the detested target of the massive Selma March for Black voting rights in 1965.
Now he says in published interviews that race was never at the heart of his argument – that he believes integration is best for Alabama.
He was standing up for his state against the federal government – not trying to keep the Black people down, he says.
He said the same thing last year when interviewed on the Alabama civil rights movement by a reporter, a native Alabaman, who didn’t remember it that way.
“But the federal government wasn’t the only force asking Alabama to change. Weren’t large numbers of Alabama Blacks asking the same things?” I asked.
There was a pause. “Did you say you grew up in Alabama?” Wallace asked.
“Turn it off for a minute,” he said, motioning toward the tape recorder. If this was an Alabaman he was talking to, it would be a personal talk.
The tape recorder was duly turned off, but the following exchange was committed to memory:
“I honestly said (in the 1960s) that I was for the existing order,” he said. “Of course many people were then, and I
was one and the same. Your own parents were probably the same. You say you’re from Alabama. They probably supported me.” He folded his hands as if the point had been made.
“No, governor, they didn’t support you.”
“They didn’t?” He seemed deeply troubled.
“Well, then, they were ultra-liberals,” he said, with a decisive nod of his head. His voice got deep and spooky, the way it did in his television speeches when he’d warn in ominous tones about those “u-u-u-ultra liberals” in the North and in Washington, D.C. Once again, the point seemed to be made.
“No, sir, they were just normal people to me,” I said.
We talked for another hour, as darkness closed in outside, and his long office began to seem hollow and lonely. We ranged over the civil rights movement, the messages he sent to the federal bureaucracy, the people he had stood up for over the decades.
“We’ve got to get her out of there,” a Wallace press aide was overhead saying in the outer office as Wallace continued to talk about his long career.
Meanwhile, Wallace pulled out compilations of his 1974 election returns, showing heavy support in several majority-Black areas. “Go ask any of these people if I fight the Black people,” he said.
It seemed desperately important to him that no one go away thinking ill of him or believing he had caused harm to any people or the state.
One historian says it will take a generation to unravel the Wallace phenomenon. Who was the man and what did he mean, and how did he touch those nerves – not only here in Alabama. but all over the country? I think he’ll he judged at least as important as Huey Long.”
Ironically. he began political life as a “liberal.” in Alabama terms. He rose out of South Alabama’s Barbour County as a classic populist in the 1940s.
He thrived on personal contact from his college days onward, it is said. He tromped through fields, walked streets, sent Christmas cards, and reached deep and wide among the state’s common people. “I like to touch people,” he was quoted as saying.
It was perhaps that grassroots heritage that gave him his remarkable rapport with the American working class, whose response to him shocked and horrified established national politicians.
He was elected governor in 1962, 1970, and 1974. When the Alabama Constitution prohibited him from seeking a consecutive term in 1966, he ran his wife. Lurleen, as his proxy. She triumphed without a run-off against a field of nine, but died a painful death from cancer while in office.
Lt. Gov. Albert Brewer then took the reins for the only interruption in Wallace’s rule between 1963 and now. Wallace defeated him in 1970. (Rumors were spread during the run-off that the Brewer family shared sex and drugs with Blacks.)
It was said – and it was true – that a rainy election day bode well for Wallace because his supporters would trudge through mud and floods to vote for him. The other candidates’ backers would probably worry more about getting wet.
In Alabama, at his height, Wallace could muster a crowd of 1,500 at a village shopping center or a country road crossing where only a few dozen people lived. He seemed fired by the crowds, as if he could suck in their energy and fury, and run on it for hours. It was as if there were something deeply personal between them and him.
It is impossible to forget the frenzy that erupted at his inaugural address in 1963 when he drew the line in the dust and declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” – the phrase for which history will probably remember him, despite his pleadings to the contrary.
He was just carrying on the battle of the people of Alabama, standing in as their proxy, doing their bidding, he now says. And when he ran for president in 1964, 1968. 1972 and 1976, that was for Alabama too, he says.
And the crippling wounds that Arthur Bremmer inflicted on him at the crest of his presidential drive in 1972? That too, was for his people, he says. “I appreciate your letting me he your instrument.” he said in a recent speech.
“Knowing what has happened to me as a result of it, I’d do it all over again.”
Wallace’s close aides are seriously concerned about his future. They fear he will be lonely even lost – as a private citizen.
He is divorced, partially deaf, paralyzed from the waist down and plagued by pain and by swings of mood. A relative says the excitement of a loving crowd is about the only thing that takes his mind off the wrenching pains.
Wallace has been named head of fundraising for rehabilitation services at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. The job will allow him to live and work in Montgomery, the state capital, where he gained his spot in history.
He also plans to join the speaking circuit, with the help of a Nashville publicity agency. Recently, he moved into a new house, custom built to make it easy for him to move around in a wheelchair. And the state Legislature has voted to assign him two state troopers for the rest of his life, 24 hours a day, at a cost of $200,000 a year.
He needs them to lift him in and out of cars, and generally to ease his movements.
Friends and supporters also kicked in cash to buy him a $15,258 Lincoln Continental limousine. (The dealer made them a price – about $12,000, aides say.) It is identical to the shiny black car he has used as governor, except its cushiony interior is maroon instead of gray.
The car was displayed next to the podium at George Wallace Appreciation Day, and long lines of couples took turns posing in front of the sleek new car as friends snapped their pictures with Instamatics.
When the keys were presented to Wallace, he wiped his eyes. “I’m deeply moved,” he said.
Even within the festive atmosphere, there were signs that the “Wallace phenomenon” had unravelled. The crowd, including about 25 Blacks, numbered only 1,500 – the number he used to draw at rural crossroad rallies.
An estimated 12,000 had come to his 1963 inaugural ball in the same coliseum. And in Houston on the same weekend as Wallace Appreciation Day, 45,000 cheering fans met the Houston Oilers for a rally at the Astrodome, even though they’d just lost a playoff game to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Still, the crowds pushing toward Wallace’s wheelchair felt as thick and intense as in the old days. They came from throughout the state, senior citizens from Geneva, relatives from Clayton, a beautician from Jasper, a gas station operator from Troy, a sherriff, bank employees, lunch counter owners – the coalition that first gave Wallace his phenomenal hold on the state.
Many of the men wore imitation straw hats with Wallace stickers around the brim, and the women were decked out in Wallace buttons of several vintages. One woman wore a pendant that had Wallace’s picture encased in clear plastic.
“Give ’em my love in Jasper. What’s goin’ on in Geneva? Well, hello, sherriff!” Wallace went on and on, reminding them all that he knew them by name, hometown and profession.
After the singing of “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” announcer Doug Benton, a state official who has introduced Wallace at almost every political rally he ever addressed in any state, said the familiar lines:
“I want you all to stand and welcome the star of our show, America’s greatest living statesman, the honorable Gov. George C. Wallace.”
Wallace was wheeled on stage. Flashbulbs seemed to explode all around his picture. He sat tall and beamed for the cameras, the crowd clapping in the background, the band twanging out familiar, good, country cadences.
Wallace’s face glowed with color, and he exuded the enthusiasm and life that many of his friends had seen only infrequently in past years.
But all at once, there was stillness around the governor’s wheelchair. Everyone on stage had clasped his hands, kissed him or hugged his neck. The pictures had all been taken. It was ending, you could feel it.
The governor’s hands, which had both been reaching minutes earlier to the crowd of wellwishers, rested on the wheels of his chair. Both of his cheeks were smeared with various shades of lipstick. And there he sat, ramrod straight in his wheelchair, posing with a huge, almost blissful smile for the cameras that weren’t going off anymore.
Reprinted from The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.Dale Russakoff is a staff writer for the Atlanta Journal.