The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

Wallace, George
Thomas F. Bertonneau - 04/30/12
Lifespan: (1919–1998)

Forever engraved in historical memory as the Alabama governor who physically blocked the entry of black students to the University of Alabama in Birmingham, George Corley Wallace was always more complicated than his critics allowed. Born in rural Alabama in 1919, he descended from tenant farmers and himself tilled soil while in his early twenties. Wallace studied law and became licensed to practice in 1942; first, however, he joined the Army Air Force, in which he served, in Europe, until 1945. He got himself elected state district judge in Alabama in 1952 and attracted attention in 1956 when he refused to comply with a federal court order to produce voting records. Wallace’s pugilistic advocacy of segregation (he boxed bantam-weight in high school) made him notorious as governor, an office that he held intermittently from 1962 through 1987. (The interregna were taken up by his wife Lurleen—his political surrogate—when state law barred him from serving a consecutive term.)

Analysts believe that Wallace’s participation in the 1968 presidential election, as the candidate of his own American Independent Party, threw the election to Richard Nixon by attracting Democrat voters in the South away from the liberal favorite Hubert Humphrey. When Wallace essayed a second presidential run in 1972, he fell victim, while campaigning in Maryland, to a would-be assassin’s bullet. The trauma shackled him to a wheelchair, in chronic pain, for the rest of his life. He nevertheless resumed the governorship, serving his last term after the death of his wife, which had been the second great blow to his body and soul.

In later years, Wallace experienced a genuine conversion, bringing Alabama blacks into his administration and publicly repudiating his earlier pro-segregation position; only large-scale black support could have sent him back to the statehouse. Prominent figures from the civil rights movement guaranteed his sincerity. While Wallace’s early advocacy of racial discrimination now seems like the last hurrah of a morally retrograde attitude, his warnings about the self-aggrandizing tendency of the federal government have proven uncanny in their foresight. He was a Ninth and Tenth Amendment man before his time. In other respects (his welfare programs for rural Alabama), he behaved as something other than a conservative. He bears no little resemblance to another southern governor, Huey Long. When Wallace died in 1998, President Clinton eulogized him in a speech.

Further Reading
  • Lesher, Stephan. George Wallace: American Populist. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1994.
  • Rohler, Lloyd. George Wallace: Conservative Populist. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2004.
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