In the fall of 1962, when George C. Wallace was campaigning as a tough-talking segregationist to win the Alabama governor’s chair for the first of four terms, Donald Trump was a 16-year-old cadet at New York Military Academy.
Wallace’s vow to stand in “the schoolhouse door” to prevent integration was earning him a high profile, both in his home state and around the country. Trump had a profile, but it was not what you would call a high one.
Fast forward. On Friday, Donald Trump, now a billionaire businessman, will take the oath for the presidency of the United States, an office for which Wallace ran four times. And while Wallace in his 1962 gubernatorial campaign became someone about whom Alabamians and other Americans had strong opinions, Trump has become a national lightning rod to millions of Americans and a hero to millions of others.
After his 1962 victory, Wallace would dominate Alabama politics for decades. But the mixed feelings about what he would do as governor are evident in the abundant letters and telegrams sent to him in the fall of ’62, from Alabama and beyond, that are on microfilm at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. However, nothing Wallace said or did at that time gained him anything near the written attention that Donald Trump receives daily in response to the 140-character thoughts he expresses on something Wallace did not live long enough to see.
A “social network” named Twitter.
Take a look at Trump’s January 14 Tweet criticizing civil rights veteran, Alabama native, and Georgia U.S. Rep. John Lewis for saying he will not attend Friday’s inauguration and that he does not consider Trump a legitimate president because Russia “participated in helping this man get elected.” Trump responded to Lewis’ comments with a two-post, less-than-accurate Tweet, saying in part that “Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart.”
By Monday, the first segment of Trump’s comment had received 32,000 replies. It also had been retweeted 21,000 times, and had received 84,000 “likes.” As is so common with controversy, the replies, many of them from someone with a username and not their given one, are usually strongly worded, and you do not have to go deep in the comments before the tweeters get into a cyber-scrum of points and counterpoints — some off the original topic —and name-calling.
Wallace, who died in 1998, never saw the power of social media, and it’s interesting to speculate what he and his advisers would have done with it during the high-profile civil rights episodes that surfaced during his first administration. Many, if not most, of his fellow Alabamians would have been using social media, too, but that tool was not at their disposal then, so many communicated with Wallace using the tools that were available to them— the pen, the typewriter, or the telegram. Their communications reflected things they had read not online, but in their newspaper, heard on the radio, or learned from watching one of the three existing TV networks’ nightly newscasts.
If a survey of a sampling of these communications is any indication, there was not but one subject on the minds of these writers: Race, and Wallace’s vow to keep Alabama’s public education system segregated. Fresh in their minds was the uprising at the University of Mississippi from September 30 to October 1, to stop the federally supported effort of James Meredith to enroll as Ole Miss’ first black student.
Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett had attempted to stop the enrollment, secretly tried to work out a politically face-saving solution with President John F. Kennedy’s government, and had riled up a Confederate battle flag-waving crowd at an Ole Miss football game when, in a tone of proud defiance, he had raised his fist in the air and professed his love for the Magnolia State, its customs and its heritage. Two men were killed during the disorder, and thousands of soldiers were sent to Oxford to keep order. The Ole Miss affair was a bloody sequel to President Eisenhower’s use of troops five years earlier to ensure the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School.
In the White House and in homes and businesses in the Heart of Dixie, no one at this time knew exactly what Wallace was going to do if blacks won the legal right to enroll at the University of Alabama, Auburn or the state’s other all-white public colleges. That did not stop people, in Alabama and elsewhere, from writing him.
As one can find through a reading of the first 40 letters on a microfilm roll in the state archives, some were telling Wallace to stand strong, as Barnett had publicly done in Mississippi, while others were urging him to back off his campaign pledge and prevent an Ole Miss debacle in Alabama. Some of the writers are lawyers or businessmen; others, ministers of the same Methodist faith as Wallace.
One is an aerospace firm administrator; another is the spouse of an industrialist, and some are just individuals with no particular credentials. Some offer prayers or scriptural citations to support of their opinions; one says he is awaiting his marching orders, and some are tilters at windmills whose missives include praise for Wallace, but just as many or even more pages about their Quixotic world views.
In keeping with how things had been in the state for generations, some of the Alabama writers did not say they were integrationists, but they worried about the price the state might pay for fighting a violent, losing battle for segregation. Some also referred to a crisis that could have caused violence on a much greater scale — the confrontation between the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union over the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Based on the dates in most of the communications, this crisis was ongoing or had just ended.
“The missiles were moved into Cuba while we were spending the tax money of the people to protect one dirty communist negro (at Ole Miss),” wrote Virgie Ballard from the tiny town of Calico Rock, Ark., two days after the missile crisis ended.
“Let’s try to have peace in the world,” Mrs. W.J. Ellis of Fort Payne wrote three days before the showdown’s end. “We certainly need it.”
Before her wish for peace, Mrs. Ellis also had written, “Please do not push the negro situation in Alabama. If we are going to let Hindus, Chinese and other internationals into our universities, then I think the American negro has a right to go also.”
Another writer added that, like Wallace, he did “not favor integration either, but I do feel it is better to have token integration without violence than it is to create turmoil for the purpose of trying to prove a point that cannot be won. My family and I supported you and voted for you to be our next Governor of the State of Alabama, but it was not on the basis of your stand that you would defy integration at every cost.”
Reflecting the concern on the part of the business community — a concern that has continued up to this day — over issues that could damage the state, other letter-writers mixed praise for Wallace’s plans to develop Alabama economically with concern over his racial stance.
In a two-page typewritten letter dated a day after he met Wallace, and four months after Wallace’s infamous “segregation forever” assertion in his January 14, 1963, inaugural speech, J.A. Barclay, manager of the Huntsville branch of Northrop Space Laboratories, included the text from the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change …” Before doing that, he had related an anecdote about the damaging power of words and the legacy of the Ole Miss mess.
“One of the tasks which we in the Aerospace Industry must face in building
sizable operations in Huntsville is to lure experienced people from their present location, and … this means luring them from California to Huntsville,” Barclay wrote. “One of the difficulties which I have encountered is that the image of Alabama to the uninformed non-resident is not good because of the racial problem which is currently receiving so much attention outside of our State.
“As an illustration, on the day following publication of your inaugural address in Los Angeles, two engineers with graduate degrees who had agreed to move to Huntsville changed their minds with the explanation that ‘they didn’t want to get involved in a racial mess such as occurred in Mississippi.’”
Later in the letter, Barclay offered some carefully worded advice: “May I suggest, however, as a representative of the Aerospace Industry and a resident of Alabama, by choice, that this problem be handled within the laws of our Nation and with the dignity and wisdom which the citizens of Alabama have a right to expect from their Chief Executive.”
Others who professed support for Wallace’s stance often did so in blunt, straightforward fashion.
“URGE YOU NOT TO GIVE IN TO SOFT TALK OF SURRENDER,” wrote Walter C. Pope of Birmingham in a November 15 telegram in which he referred to himself as “A BAPTIST AND A FATHER.’ “STAND UP AS A REAL LEADER AND DO NOT BETRAY US IF NO OTHER WAY TO KEEP RACES SEPARATED CLOSE THE SCHOOLS.”
After praising Wallace for some criticisms he had made of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP, Edward Thornton, a Mobile attorney, all but said Alabamians should fight for segregation.
“The world can depend on the people in Alabama to react exactly as they did in Mississippi,” Thornton wrote. “If there are any more Merediths for Alabama, we promise them the same reception Ole Miss gave the original. Can we do less than that?”
Another writer, after a rant that included references to “King” Kennedy and Supreme Court Justice (and Alabama native) Hugo Black, whom he called “Benedict,” said he was ready to fight if federal troops were sent to Alabama to enforce integration.
“If you should call for volunteers to repell [sic] invasion, I’d come-a-running,” he wrote. “I am nineteen, six foot, one, weigh two-hundred and thirty pounds and would dearly love to tear into some of those nigger soldiers from New Jersey.”
As these letters indicate, Wallace was front and center of the race issue. In his past, which included a losing bid for governor in 1958, he had not been a “last-ditch segregationist,” as his political biographer Dan Carter says. But Wallace had chosen to run as a racial hardliner in 1962 and had won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination which was tantamount to winning the governor’s office because there was no meaningful Republican presence in Alabama. If, as in a no longer relevant joke, the state’s Republicans could all gather in a phone booth, there was not much room for outspoken racial moderates in Alabama politics.
“Either you had to be in an incredibly strong position economically and in terms of your status in the community to speak out publicly or you had to be really courageous, I think,” Carter said.
So what was it that prompted a couple from Fultondale, Mr. and Mrs. John Buchmann, to send a three-page handwritten letter urging Wallace to accept the reality of integration and “be loved and respected for his good judgment and faith in the people of Alabama?” In their letter, they did not occupationally identify themselves — they operated a motor lodge, and its address was what they listed for themselves — and there was no risk of Facebook or Twitter exposure. But like others who are counseling Wallace to not do anything rash, their words have a quality that suggest they gave them a lot of thought before they put them on paper, a quality unlike so many of the rants or insults that pass for communication on Donald Trump’s beloved Twitter.
“We in Alabama can do no more with this situation than other states who have fought it have done, other than take it as calmly as possible without harsh words and actions, as others have done and have accomplished nothing whatsoever by doing,” the Buchmanns wrote. “If it means being different, let’s be different; let’s be Americans. We do not want Alabama scandalized or our governor harshly criticized.”
There is no way to know now if Wallace read the letter. Sadly, violent, racially charged episodes would occur during his gubernatorial term — the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the “Bloody Sunday” attack upon civil rights marchers in Selma among them. But on a warm June morning, about seven months after the Buchmanns wrote their letter, in an atmosphere of heavy security, he stood in a doorway to symbolically and only temporarily bar the admission of James Hood and Vivian Malone to the University of Alabama. And, as Dan Carter notes, the timing of his act ensured that the three networks would only be able to show his jut-jawed defiance — and not his capitulation a few hours later — on their nightly news programs.
If Donald Trump has shown himself a master of media manipulation in the Twitter age, Wallace showed some media mastery of his own, Carter said, long before a tweet started meaning something other than the call of a bird.