The Career of George Wallace

Which is worse? The bigot who deeply and sincerely feels his bigotry, or the opportunist who affects bigotry to advance his political career? The answer is the true bigot, surely, for he is beyond compromise, and when political circumstances no longer reward bigotry above all else, he will still work to keep bigotry alive. Then again, maybe it is the opportunist, because on top of encouraging hatred and violence, he is lying. Unlike the sincere bigot, generally, he profits from bigotry and in doing so shows others how to profit from it. That may do more to keep bigotry alive than the true believers ever can.The career of George Wallace, the most brilliant and most successful segregationist of the 1960s, raises a further possibility: What about the opportunist who converts to the cause? Beginning his political career as a racial moderate, Wallace lost his first gubernatorial contest (in 1958) to John Patterson, whose fire-eating Negrophobia scared white voters away from Wallace's moderation. In defeat, Wallace vowed that "no other son of a bitch will ever out-nigger me again."From 1958 on, he had to exaggerate his expressions of bigotry outrageously to convince his followers he meant what he said. In the process, Wallace seems to have convinced himself. Unlike Patterson and all the other racial demagogues, Wallace's power extended beyond his region -- the only Southerners who had more national influence in his day were Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King. And, Dan Carter suggests in his engrossing and well-researched biography, Wallace's influence was more lasting. Wallace was the first to distill and prove the effectiveness of the formula that killed Great Society liberalism and gave birth to the political culture of our own time: "More than any other political leader of his generation," Carter says, Wallace "was the alchemist of the new social conservatism as he compounded racial fear, anticommunism, racial nostalgia and traditional right-wing economics into a movement that laid the foundation for the conservative counterrevolution that reshaped American politics in the 1970s and 1980s."Carter overemphasizes one of the elements in Wallace's formula. Right-wing economics was not a big issue for him -- not nearly as big as it was for, say, Barry Goldwater. Carter describes Wallace as the proto-Reaganite of the 1960s, but that title is perhaps better suited to Goldwater or Richard Nixon. The devotion of blue-collar voters in the 1980s to Ronald Reagan, the flagrant champion of the rich, remains somewhat difficult to explain, but their devotion to Wallace makes sense -- Wallace earned their support with a true populist record. In Alabama, he supported taxes on corporations and opposed the regressive sales tax while expanding the state budget with huge public works and education programs. And, though Big Labor's political action committee suppressed the fact in the 1968 presidential campaign, Wallace opposed state "right-to-work" laws, the major strategic device of the post-New Deal reaction against labor.Half of Wallace supporters in the North in 1968 named Hubert Humphrey -- the candidate of the unions and the welfare-statists -- not Nixon, as their second choice. Carter rightly emphasizes that as Wallace became a national figure, his views on economic issues shifted rightward. But that is true of both major parties, and of the blue-collar voters who were the chief prize in the contest between them. Wallace brought a lot of angry white people into political prominence and kindled their resentment of their liberal Democratic rulers, but he cannot get the credit for converting them to right-wing economics. If anybody can get credit for that, it would be the many Republicans who suggested that tax hikes pay for welfare, and that welfare mainly benefits fashionable minority groups -- and, therefore, assuages the guilt of rich white liberals on the cheap as they flee the crime-ridden cities in which blue-collar workers are trapped.Wallace did develop that plausible mixture of lies and truths to some extent. But the key to its lasting power was affirmative action, which explicitly stated that minority groups should benefit at the expense of white men -- most of them, as it turned out, working-class white men. Ironically, it was not a liberal president, but the Nixon administration that created the "set-asides" of government contracts for "minority-owned" businesses and required contractors to adopt "goals and timetables" for hiring minority workers. In a brilliant political stroke, the latter program aimed to make unions, and not just capitalists, abandon seniority and other traditional promotion systems.While Wallace capitalized on popular resentment of affirmative action, it was Nixon who forced white workers to choose for the first time between black "civil rights" and their own rights. From this, it was a small step to believing the Republican promise that cuts in domestic spending would reduce the worker's tax burden and force the jobless (who were disproportionately black) to find jobs. Meanwhile, Democrats had to defend Nixon's affirmative action policies or risk losing the black vote.The best evidence Carter presents that Wallace is the true key to the rise of the right ironically reduces him to a secondary role. He shows that Nixon's greatest fear all through his first term was Wallace. In the South, where Nixon most needed votes for his re-election bid in 1972, Wallace's supporters overwhelmingly named Nixon as their second choice. Nixon had to move far enough to the right on racial issues to overcome the segregationists' skepticism.Carter points to various documents that suggest Nixon canceled school busing orders, nominated segregationists (unsuccessfully) to the Supreme Court, and abandoned his surprisingly redistributive Family Assistance Plan solely to win votes away from Wallace. Nixon won the votes, but Wallace "was playing him like a marionette," Carter says. Competition from Wallace led Nixon to undo many of the gains made by the civil rights movement, thereby legitimizing Wallace's extremism. So Wallace became, in Carter's words, "the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics."While Wallace undoubtedly had a profound influence on the end of postwar liberalism -- far more influence than historians have given him credit for -- there are important differences between Wallace's ideology and that of contemporary right-wing ideologues such as Newt Gingrich and Ralph Reed. The gap between Southern segregationism and the later, more successful conservative movement is revealed in one of the most remarkable Wallace statements Carter quotes: "Law and order is a communist term." Wallace made this remark to white moderates who suggested that resistance to the Supreme Court was futile and that negotiating with black demonstrators was the best way to get them out of the streets. "Every time the communists take over, they clamp down with law and order," he insisted.It infuriated Wallace that "law and order" was a slogan of the civil rights movement because it provided an apple-pie issue behind which fair-weather segregationists could hide as they gave up the fight. Wallace's defining issue was segregation: He was willing to sacrifice law and order for it. But "law and order," of course, became Nixon's defining issue -- his battle cry against hippies, protesters and the dangerous criminals set free by the Warren Court.Today, those who seek to curb defendants' rights and fight crime through police liberation are Nixon's heirs, not Wallace's. Whatever the current right's outrages, it does not win elections through racial demagoguery. Gingrich and his followers may harbor deep racist impulses -- though there is no evidence that they harbor any more than liberals do -- but, in stark contrast to Wallace, they keep their public statements scrupulously free of racist themes.Ironically, Wallace was far better at getting the black vote than today's right has been. After he survived an assassination attempt in 1972 that left him paralyzed, he renounced racism and begged black people's forgiveness. He got 30 percent of the black vote in Alabama's gubernatorial primary of 1974 and had strong black support ever after. The clearest difference between the right-wing groundswell of the 1980s and the earlier, less successful segregationist movement is in the role of the church.Today's Republican majority in Congress and the disappearance of liberal Republicanism, both unimaginable 30 years ago, cannot be explained without the recent grass-roots mobilization of conservative Christian masses. Had segregationists been able to mobilize their churches, they might have managed to defeat civil rights. But they could not. Following the Supreme Court's desegregation decision of 1954, the assemblies of all major denominations of the white Southern church passed resolutions in favor of compliance with the law.After Wallace assumed leadership of the segregation movement in 1962, white preachers and congregations all over Alabama bombarded him with pleas to drop his belligerent rhetoric and comply with the new "law of the land." Only a handful of preachers on the fringes of the Southern church actively defended segregation, and they fiercely attacked the white Southern church as a whole for its "moderation."Wallace had never been terribly religious, so his falling out with the mainstream Southern church did not hurt him as much as it hurt many segregationists. Interestingly, when Wallace renounced racism, he also got religion, and at that moment he began to resemble today's right. But Carter does not make that connection: To him, it is the Wallace of 1958-1972, the unforgiving and unforgiven segregationist, who prefigured today's formidable right wing.Most original books overstate their case -- they have to, or the significance of their argument is easily missed. At any rate, it is hard to imagine a book about Wallace -- who became famous only because he could exaggerate so well -- without some overstatement in it. Carter carefully corrects Wallace's own exaggerations, and provides new evidence and insights that will lead to a better understanding, or at least a fuller debate, of exactly how the upheavals of the 1960s created the mess we are in today.AUTHOR BIO: David Chappell is the author of Inside Agitators: White Southerners in the Civil Rights Movement (Johns Hopkins). He is now writing a book about religion and politics in the post-World War II South. -30-

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}
@2022 - AlterNet Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. - "Poynter" fonts provided by