I remember the first time I saw him. It was on a golden autumn day in 1962, and he was running for governor. The streets of my little town in northwest Alabama were cordoned off, and the honky-tonk band was playing a rousing version of “Dixie” as hundreds of state and Confederate flags waved in the breeze. When he strutted onto the stage and approached the big silver microphone, the crowd hushed in anticipation. “My fellow Alabamians. . . . ” I don’t remember much of what he said thereafter, but as a 10-year-old kid, I felt proud to be from Alabama.
The recent death of former Governor George Corley Wallace brought forth an outpouring of grief in Alabama, and I was among the mourners. While the rest of the country was absorbed in the Clinton sex scandal, we Alabamians buried a man that history ought to remember as the greatest American political figure of the latter half of the 20th century. Simply put, George Wallace was decades ahead of his time in identifying the conservative-populist agenda of the 1990’s, and he needed neither consultants nor pollsters to tell him which way the political winds were blowing.
Wallace’s demise occasioned the predictable response from the political pundits and media talking heads. On September 17, the Montgomery Advertiser preached to its empty choir: “No journey is longer than the one from prejudice to the acceptance that all human beings are created equal. But that is a journey George Corley Wallace made in his lifetime.”
And perhaps he did. But George Wallace will be remembered for more than his volte-face. At the peak of his political career. Governor Wallace stood foursquare against the imposition on the South of the Yankee ideology of egalitarianism. Like many of the South’s greatest statesmen before him, Wallace understood that a Jacobin-inspired mechanical equality was contrary to nature and to biblical teaching and could only be enforced by an all-powerful central government. The destruction of states’ rights in the South (and, by implication, elsewhere) was the first step toward undermining the American people and their institutions. Wallace rightly identified the enemy and fought it valiantly until the attempt on his life in 1972.
The media’s analysis of the evil half of the Wallace legacy focused largely on his “stand in the schoolhouse door,” defying federal orders to integrate the University of Alabama. His evocation of state sovereignty on that occasion was the proper response to a federal government lurching far beyond the bounds of its authority. Moreover, he had the great majority of Alabamians behind him. They understood that this assault was designed to foment a social revolution that would usher in a brave new world governed by a set of ideas foreign to Alabama and the South.
It is said that in 1981 Wallace became a born-again Christian and repented of his sins in the presence of the Reverend Billy Graham. I presume the pundits mean racism and segregation, but Wallace never did turn away from the most important political stand he ever took—defending states’ rights. Though chameleon-like on the politics of race as a young, middle-aged, and old man, Wallace never wavered from the populist political agenda of which states’ rights was the heart and soul. He understood that the states were sovereign political societies and that the federal leviathan was their sworn adversary. Wallace championed the “little man” against briefcase toting bureaucrats and “pointy-headed intellectuals” who grew fat and powerful at the expense of the honest working man, who was usually stigmatized as a “redneck.”
Wallace’s states’ rights populism played well outside Alabama and the South as well. He ran for president in both 1968 and 1972, and in the latter campaign he had the Democratic-Republican establishment shaking in their Guccis. The day after he was shot by Arthur Bremer in Laurel, Maryland, he won both the Michigan and Maryland Democratic primaries. Though a Democrat, he will perhaps be remembered best tor his observation that “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrats and the Republicans”—a remark that is truer today than it was 30 years ago.
Alabama loved Governor George Corley Wallace. To those of us who witnessed him in his prime, he was the epitome of grit and courage in a day of political and social upheaval. His funeral drew tens of thousands of his fellow Alabamians to Montgomery. As his coffin, draped with the red St. Andrew’s cross on a field of white, descended the steps of the state capitol, we could not help wondering whether we would ever see the likes of him again.