In the decade before his death, George Corley Wallace tried hard to distance himself from the deep racist grave he had dug opposing civil rights for African Americans to prevent what he called “race mixing” and the end of “white purity.”
Toward the end of his life, he tried to explain it all away. In a 1991 interview with Carl Rowan of The Washington Post, Wallace claimed his famous quote — “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever” — was the biggest mistake of his life. He blamed the quote on a speech writer. He said the day of his 1963 inauguration as governor was cold and that he was hurrying through the speech. He said he planned not to read the quote, but forgot.
Asked why he then stood in the doorway of the admissions office at the University of Alabama that summer in an attempt to block the registration of the school’s first African American students, he said he “had to stand up for segregation or be defeated.”
Wallace also threw in the standard disclaimers — offered by many of his less “openly racist” supporters at the time — that he had “nothing against colored folks” but only wanted the federal government to stay out of the “state’s business.”
Of course, the “state’s business” that Wallace and bigots everywhere were big on protecting was “rights” to white supremacy through rigged election systems and white-dominated legislatures empowered to “keep Negroes in their place.”
Wallace’s rise to fame as a political populist, however, did not come primarily from the Ku Klux Klan or the many other white supremacist groups who supported him. His power as a populist politician came from throngs of everyday Americans who embraced his racist cause under the guise of “other issues.”
He offered “deniability” to the masses who could not see or wanted to deny the racial prejudice that lay shallowly under the surface.
Had this self-delusion and subterfuge only raised its ugly head in Alabama and the deep South, Wallace never could have become a national poster boy for racial prejudice and inequality. Assistance for his cause came from all over the country, including in this land of good old “Hoosier values.”
In 1964, Wallace made his first bid for the presidency as a Democrat and entered several northern primary elections, including Indiana. President Lyndon Johnson had not yet announced his intention to run, so Gov. Matthew Welsh placed his name on the ballot as a “stand-in” in order to try to keep Wallace from winning all the delegates to the convention.
Reaction to Wallace was mixed, but support for the segregationist was enough to win him 29.9 percent of the Democratic vote in Indiana and 23 percent of the vote in Bartholomew County — even after Donald Thompson, the local party chairman, said he would rather Democrats “stayed home from the polls” than vote for Wallace.
Support was strong enough among Republicans that Bob Stewart, the GOP chairman, appealed to the party faithful not to cross over and vote in the Democratic primary in order to back Wallace.
Although newspaper endorsements of candidates are rare in primary elections, Duane Harrison of The Hope Star Journal stepped forward to be the only newspaper publisher in the state to endorse the Alabama governor. His editorial was careful to say his newspaper did not back segregation, just Wallace’s positions on state’s rights.
Wallace made his first campaign stop in Indiana on April 15 for a speech at Butler University. He spoke to a standing-room-only gathering of mainly students in Clowes Hall. The primary subject of the speech was the need to preserve “racial purity.” At the end of the speech, the crowd gave Wallace a standing ovation.
In “The Wallace Story,” a biography he wrote in 1966, Bill Jones, Wallace’s press secretary, tells about turning to the governor as they left the auditorium and expressing “amazement” that such a speech would receive an ovation in a northern state.
“We are not in a northern state,” Wallace replied. “We are in Indiana.”
I have no way of knowing how many of those backers of the Alabama segregationist ended up regretting their vote. Wallace ran for public office all his life by stirring up racial hatred, placing his stamp of approval on the bigotry of others, denying his obvious racism and reaping the benefits at the ballot box.
As death approached, Wallace either regretted the evil he helped set loose or at least wanted history to forgive him.
As we approach the 2020 presidential election, the Wallace playbook for inflaming racial and ethnic prejudices for political gain has once again been pulled out for another run. Hopefully, the more patriotic and rational heads in our government will work to defuse the effort.
Otherwise, someone else may spend the last days of his life trying to distance himself from the evil he has promoted, just like George Corley Wallace.