In Birmingham they love the gov’nor
boo boo boo…
— Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1974
In 1970, singer-songwriter Neil Young released “Southern Man,” in which he rebuked white Southerners and challenged them to mend their racist ways. Two years later, he followed that up with “Alabama.” In the latter song, he offered the nation’s help if only the state would receive it. Lynyrd Skynyrd, a Jacksonville, Florida rock band, responded in 1974 with “Sweet Home Alabama,” which quickly rose to #8 on the music charts. The group acknowledged “Mister Young’s” offer, then verbally spit in his lyrical eye. They told him they did not care what he thought about them. Theirs was a message of comeuppance and every time fans heard it, they cheered and cheered and cheered.
The message was the same as that of George Wallace, longtime Alabama governor, who honed it to perfection throughout the 1960s. Like the Florida band, he found enthusiastic supporters all over the country, although less so in Birmingham than in most other Alabama towns. Both hit an authentic chord and their white, working class fans could not get enough.
When Wallace became governor for the first time in 1962, he spoke for a generation of working class whites no one else would associate with. Every other major constituency had advocates fighting for their political interests: Eastern liberals had the Kennedys, African-American and Southern white elites had Martin Luther King, working class Southern blacks had Fred Shuttlesworth, and Northern black radicals had Malcolm X. These groups had political sex appeal and were on the move morally, if not politically and economically. History could no longer deny them. Their gains, working whites feared, had to come from somewhere, and they were pretty sure they knew where.
George Wallace understood their paranoia because he felt it, too. Like them, he had lived on the edges of poverty and every time his family had been on the cusp of better times, something – or somebody – got in the way. He knew from his grandfather that poverty was not the fault of the poor. It was, instead, due to the policies of the rich and institutionalized prejudice toward the South that kept people like him disadvantaged. The nobodies and the put-down, he learned, needed a voice, and he would give it to them.
Wallace entered politics when he ran for Student Government Association president at the University of Alabama as the anti-establishment candidate. Barely able to buy books, much less clothes that fit, he could not afford to join a fraternity. No one outside the Greek system had ever won, but instead of letting circumstance get in his way, he leaned into the challenge.* He politicked hard all over campus to students like himself and convinced them that if they stuck together, they could change history. They backed him and he won. (According to Wallace biographer Stephen Lesher, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, fully one-third of the student body consisted of non-Southerners. Included was a relatively large Jewish population from Northeastern states where some universities used quotas to restrict them.)
Following law school, he left his young wife Lurleen, whom he met while she was a dime store clerk in nearby Northport, to enter the armed services. He hated much about this period of his life, especially the toll taken on him by serving on a bomber plane and the distance the work put between himself and his political ambitions. After many dangerous missions, Wallace announced to his superiors that he would no longer fly bombing raids. His nerves, he said, could not take it.
Military doctors agreed, and for the next two months, he received treatment for battle fatigue. After he was honorably discharged, he left the service with war medals and a disability check. In at least one campaign, an adversary tried to use his medical records against him but, characteristically, Wallace owned his experience and challenged the man to explain his own war record. The man demurred and the issue went away.
After the war Wallace resumed his political career, landing a job as a page at the state capitol. He soaked up the politics around him and counted the days until he could run for office again. Then he would take on the Black Belt and industrial Big Mule establishment and take up for the little guy.
In 1946, he won the first of two terms (1947-1953) in the Alabama legislature. There he fought for technical schools to help the rural poor and co-authored the Wallace-Cater Act of 1951 to fund industrial parks. He regularly railed against corporate titans like those that dominated Birmingham and blocked legislation to raise sales taxes. Considered regressive and designed to fall disproportionately on the poor, sales tax hikes, he said, were “sock it to the poor” legislation.
While in the statehouse he aligned himself with Governor “Big Jim” Folsom, who, like Wallace, was a political outsider whom the establishment eyed with scorn and suspicion. He was also liberal as could be. Once, in response to attacks that he was a socialist, the governor answered that he did not know exactly what a socialist was, but if sticking up for poor people made him one, then that’s what he was.
Then came Brown. In 1954, when the U. S. Supreme Court handed down its Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating public school desegregation, Folsom was the only Southern governor who refused to sign a nullification agreement. Then, when Adam Clayton Powell, the black Congressman from New York, came to Montgomery to speak to African-American leaders, Folsom invited him to the Governor’s mansion for a drink. The local press found out, all hell broke loose, and the governor would not survive politically. Wallace saw it coming and turned against his old ally.
After his legislative stint, Wallace ran for and won a seat from the Third Judicial District. Ever scrappy and driven, he nicknamed himself the “Fightin’ Judge,” calling attention to his two state Golden Glove boxing championships from the 1930s. Wallace quickly earned admiration amongst whites and blacks for even-handed treatment. He also was known to chastise white lawyers who called black attorneys by their first name; he insisted they be referred to as “mister.” African-American attorney Fred Gray, who became famous for his Civil Rights activities, later told Wallace biographers that the judge always treated blacks in his courtroom with respect.
A circuit court room was no place for real change, however, and although he had moved away from Folsom, he had not left his populist impulse. Common folks still needed him, he believed, but first he had to become governor.
In 1958 he ran for the state’s highest office. He stood for a course of racial moderation, but his competition, John Patterson, did not. Instead, he warmly accepted support from the Ku Klux Klan while Wallace backed away. By most accounts, including his own, the move cost him the election. Historians disagree as to what, exactly, Wallace said following the defeat. Some biographers claim he said he had been “out-niggered” and would not be “out-niggered again.” Others say he claimed only that he had been “out-segged” and would not be “out-segged again.” No matter; the promise was the same and he intended to make good on it.
When Wallace ran again four years later in 1962, racial tensions were the worst in Alabama’s history. By then, President John F. Kennedy had been in office two years but had failed to deliver any meaningful civil rights legislation, frustrating the civil rights community. Moreover, he had just emerged from a violent confrontation in Mississippi when James Meredith, a black man, tried to enroll in the University of Mississippi and Kennedy sent federal troops in to protect him. Two people died, and 200 other soldiers and National Guardsmen were injured.
Martin Luther King, on the other hand, was pressuring Kennedy for federal civil rights laws, but he, too, had troubles of his own. That same year, he had been handed his activist hat in Albany, Georgia when Police Chief Laurie Pritchett refused him a much-needed televised confrontation. As a result, King had gone to Birmingham in search of a redemptive second act. He knew what he was getting into, but risks had to be taken. By then, the Magic City was a racial powder keg, with firebrand preacher Fred Shuttlesworth and his organized and angry followers on one end and Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor on the other.
Candidate Wallace had more in common politically at that time with Kennedy and Shuttlesworth than he did with Connor. Connor was instinctively racist, violent and anti-union, and served as proctor for Birmingham’s elite industrial interests. Kennedy, on the other hand, was a mainstream progressive Democrat and devoted Cold Warrior impatient with blacks’ grievances while there were Communists to fight. Shuttlesworth was a preacher and agitator who fought for the common man and never idly took any disrespect from anyone. Wallace was those things, too.
Like Kennedy, Wallace had priorities of his own, and his included becoming governor. To that end, he pivoted sharply away from the politics of moderation and took on what his biographer Dan T. Carter called the “politics of rage.” Moderation had become a losing hand.
His bet paid off and Wallace was elected. Contrary to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s assumption, however, he did not take Jefferson County. In fact, he did not accomplish this feat until 1972. Nevertheless, on his bitterly cold inauguration day in January 1963, just after white and African-American high school bands marched in front of his staging area, he vowed to keep “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Predictably, Kennedy liberals, Southern progressives and black activists blanched, but Wallace was already planning his next move. Two black students, James Hood and Vivian Malone, had made it known that they intended to enroll in the University of Alabama that fall. Wallace said they would not and promised to stand in the school’s doorway to prevent them. In Washington D. C., the Kennedy administration chided him for his racist and ridiculous posturing. He scowled and replied that he meant every word, and that if federal officials came calling in Alabama, they knew where they could find him.
Over the next few months, Wallace and Kennedy engaged in a war of words. Kennedy and his supporters scolded Wallace and snickered at his lack of breeding. Wallace lobbed back charge for charge and revealed an intellect that they had not anticipated. They accused him of pandering; he said they were “sissy britches.” They challenged the South’s character; he called them “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags.” They said he should behave better; he said they were “hypocrites.” They implored Wallace to seek peace; he told them if they wanted peace, they should speak to the civil rights agitators and the hostile federal government. They told him he believed in a lost cause; he told them he had received letters at a rate of thousands per week from supporters in Wisconsin, California and Michigan who vowed to “stand with” the South. They told him racism was a Southern phenomenon; he told them Northerners felt the same way.
Showtime came on June 13, 1963, when Hood and Malone arrived on the Tuscaloosa campus. By then it had all been arranged between the Wallace and Kennedy camps as to who would say what, when each would say it, and how it would be resolved. First Wallace would explain that his state had a constitutionally protected right to resist school desegregation, then U. S. Attorney General Katzenbach would respond that that was not the way it worked, before directing the governor calmly to step aside. Reluctantly, but with head cocked defiantly up, Wallace would step away to let the frightened students in.
Wallace promised what he knew he could never deliver, and he risked countless lives and the state’s future to do it. He thought it was worth it, and most of his supporters agreed. It wasn’t every day that white, working class Southerners were able to force a to-the-manor-born U. S. president – or at least his official – to come to their home field and take a public ribbing. They decided it was worth every nickel it may have cost them.
The governor undoubtedly enjoyed his political theatrics, particularly since no one had gotten hurt. He bragged that it had been to his credit that the occasion had been peaceful because he had told his supporters to stay away from the school campus and remain calm. If he could do it once, there was no reason he could not do it again.
But in the spring and summer of 1963, when Wallace offered to send his thuggish Alabama State Troopers to Birmingham to help the city stave off desegregation that coming fall, city officials told him to stay home. In April, as Wallace and Kennedy were putting the final touches on their upcoming appearances, Birmingham residents were voting Bull Connor out of office. By June, Connor was out and Albert Boutwell was presumptively in, but Connor refused to leave. As one observer later quipped, “Birmingham was the only city in the country with two heads and no brains.” Ultimately the voters prevailed, and although he tried, Connor never won another Birmingham election.
Still, Wallace’s victory in Tuscaloosa had emboldened him and, in turn, Conner egged on his working class constituents. On September 15, 1963, Robert Chambliss and other members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and four black girls were dead. Many accused the governor of having blood on his hands. Wallace blamed Martin Luther King, the media and the federal government, who were, he countered, as complicit as he was.
George Wallace was wrong to trick his supporters into thinking he could deliver the undeliverable. He was wrong to sacrifice his residents’ safety for his own quixotic adventure. And he was wrong to tether the state to a legacy of hate and backwardness for generations to come.
But he was right about some things, too. He was right that racism was a national disgrace, as riots in Watts, Chicago and Detroit in 1965, and in Newark two years later, proved far worse than any in the South. He was right that working class people would bear the brunt of desegregation politics as middle class whites built private schools and new neighborhoods and left poor whites and blacks to battle over their leftovers. And he was right that things may not always be what they seem.
Maybe Neil Young should have remembered that.
*Correction: Reader Josh Robinson astutely points out that former Congressman Carl Elliott beat the Machine just before Wallace did in the early 1930s.