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The Artist Of Defiance

June 2024
3min read

By the end of September George Wallace had arrived in the polls; 21 percent of Americans were supporting the former Alabama governor for President, making him a credible third-party force in the race while his Alabaman campaign workers struggled to get him onto every state ballot in the country.

The brief defiance he had shown federal marshals attempting to integrate the University of Alabama in 1963 had earned Wallace notoriety and a reputation as a dangerous man, both of which he had attempted to exploit as a minor Democratic presidential candidate in 1964. Now he was back after spending four years honing his angry appeal; when Alabama’s restriction against successive terms threatened his re-election as governor, Wallace asked the people to vote by mail, then called a special session and demanded an amendment to the state constitution. With a speed that might have impressed the master manipulator Huey Long himself, the Alabama house capitulated in twenty seconds to Wallace’s demand. The state senate vote fell short, though, and Wallace- after making sure various choice projects were canceled in his opponents’ districts but failing to get the filibuster law changed by the state supreme court—talked his ailing wife, Lurleen, into running for his job instead. They campaigned together, and despite her reluctance on the stump and recent cancer surgery, Mrs. Wallace whipped all comers. George Wallace retained access to the governor’s mansion, as well as to state moneys and workers for his 1968 presidential attempt.

By the late sixties Wallace’s violent rhetoric seemed less jolting. He was one of a number of apocalyptic political characters—black and white—promising to “stir things up.” He set himself against the two national parties, whose nominees he called “Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” He spoke vengefully on behalf of “common folks” and their children who were being bused as part of “social experiments” concocted by “pointy-headed intellectuals.”

Wallace gave almost exactly the same fiery oration several times a day, but he seemed powerfully to mean it. Although he could confide to a reporter in Cleveland that “race is what’s gonna win this thing for me,” Wallace became a master of speaking in racial code as a national candidate. “He can use all the other issues,” marveled a former Alabama senator, “—law and order, running your own schools, protecting property rights—and never mention race. But people will know he’s telling them, ‘A nigger’s trying to get your job, trying to move into your neighborhood.’ ” Part of Wallace’s vivid bigotry came naturally to him, of course, but some had also been campaign bluster he adopted after losing his first governor’s race as an Alabama moderate when he vowed he’d “never be out-niggered again.” He had returned a slightly different man and, after victory, declared famously in his 1963 inaugural, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” The 1968 campaign of his American Independent party found him pruning a little of what he had added, but people knew what he was even if he didn’t spell it all out, especially on Northern campuses, where Wallace did battle with America’s youth. His limousine was often attacked, and he met signs that said things like “Wallace is Rosemary’s Baby,” after the popular horror movie of that fall.

By collecting 2,717,338 signatures, the candidate’s people got him on the ballot in every state, each with its own quirky requirements for registration. This was an impressive piece of work, considering that the party was merely a name with no existing organization to handle such an effort. Also, Wallace exported his campaign, using almost entirely Alabamans to staff field offices, and many of these were still employees of the state, where his wife, Lurleen, had died in office in May. “He is a veritable artist of defiance,” Tom Wicker wrote covering the crusade, “a virtuoso of defeat, who has found his greatest strength in picturing himself as the little man run down in the schoolhouse door, the ‘average American’ ignored by the ‘pseudo-intellectuals’ controlling the major parties.” Wallace took his country bands across the country, delightedly baiting his hecklers to the point where fistfights sometimes occurred; he played with the threat of violence and made quite a show of bravely carrying on in the face of abuse while below him all was apparent student anarchy. One of his most famous lines became “If you elect me President and an anarchist lies down in front of my automobile, it’s going to be the last automobile he’ll want to lie down in front of.” This threat often led dozens of campus radicals to run out searching for Wallace’s car.

He was never in danger of winning it all but seemed to be building a strong base for the 1972 election. In October, though, he finally had to choose a running mate, and his selection of the former Air Force chief of staff Curtis LeMay for Vice President cost him votes. General LeMay (”about as politically graceful as a rhino in a game of ice hockey,” wrote the journalist Marshall Frady) faced down a national news conference and offered to “use anything that we could dream up, including nuclear weapons, if it was necessary” to bring a victory in Vietnam. Soon the hecklers’ signs read, “Bombs away with Curtis LeMay.”

Wallace did not, as feared by many, send the election into the House of Representatives, but he did collect the votes of ten million people, a number of them first-time voters. His 13 percent of the total, especially his strength in Illinois and Ohio, may have decided the election. “In a sense,” noted Frady at the campaign’s close, “Wallace is common to us all. That, finally, is his darkest portent. … As long as we are creatures hung halfway between the mud and the stars, figures like Wallace can be said to pose the great dark original threat.”

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