George Wallace: American Populist
The meaning of the term “populist” has undergone remarkable changes during the past century, especially the latter half of it. In some ways these changes are comparable to those undergone by the term “democracy” during the previous century, except that the reputation of “democracy” changed distinctly for the better during the nineteenth century, whereas that of “populist” sank lower and lower in the twentieth.
As the words associated with the third party founded in 1892, “Populist” and “populism” started off with strong claims for respect among historians for the courage and originality of some of the party’s leaders. I credited them myself with “one of the earliest and most thoroughgoing critiques of corporate America and its culture we have had.” These leaders ridiculed both of the old political parties as equally subservient to business interests and they scorned the press for the same reason. Their mainly agrarian supporters made alliances with industrial workers and black voters and fought hard for the full political and legal rights of both. They had their faults and inconsistencies, but they lent the term “Populist” a deserved prestige.
The heaviest blows to the reputation of populism on its way down were delivered, in the 1950s, by liberal intellectuals such as Richard Hofstadter who were seeking to explain the McCarthyite assault upon decency and to find a scapegoat for their disenchantment with the seamy side of democracy. They settled on the old Pops as apologists for provincial anti-Semitism, Negrophobia, xenophobia, crypto-fascism, paranoid conspiracy hunting, and anti-intellectualism. Since then “populism” (with or without the capital) has been regularly used as an epithet of opprobrium.
Under the title “Vox Populist” an editorial in a recent number of The New Yorker calls the current rise of reactionary and fascistic movements abroad “populist politics exploding all across Europe…all over the democratic and would-be-democratic world.” Yet there still lingers some ambiguity in the term. The same editorial remarks that “populism thrives on the sentiment of ordinary people who believe, with some truth, that privileged people—people with power, or money, or status, or contempt—have ignored them.” Identifying George Wallace in the title of Stephan Lesher’s new biography as an “American Populist,” the author appears to find this ambiguity useful, and not only in characterizing his subject but in rationalizing certain ambiguities of his own.
Born in 1919, George Wallace grew up a full generation or more after populism reached its peak in Alabama and began to decline. One remarkable thing about Clio, his birthplace (apart from its name), was its location in the home county of Reuben Kolb, founder of the Alabama Populist Party, who carried Clio and environs, long solidly Democratic, by large majorities when he ran for governor in the 1890s. Lesher shows no awareness of this fact and does not tell us how Wallace’s closest of kin voted. As a biographer, he displays little interest in history and sometimes proves misinformed as well as uninformed about the relevant past.
Lesher’s account of Clio concentrates on how Wallace’s own family became established there during Reconstruction, when the town was little more than a crossroads where poor tenant farmers and sharecroppers, black and white, tried to make a living after the war. Descended from Northern Irish Protestant immigrants who settled in the South, Wallace’s grandfather had hoisted the family out of subsistence-level farming by earning a teachers’ certificate and a medical degree and installing himself as Clio’s first doctor. Although his heavily mortgaged farm barely lasted a generation and ruined his son, George Wallace, Sr., the seat he won as a probate judge in 1928 encouraged his young grandson’s early fascination with Alabama politics. From his own crushed and embittered father, the younger George absorbed the resentment common in the region against domination from the North. Thanks to a combination of his grandfather’s connections and his own precocious talent for scheming, George, Jr., was appointed a page in the Alabama senate when he was sixteen. After returning from the army in 1945, he used his old contacts to win a seat in the Alabama house and a judgeship of his own.
From these positions he skillfully pursued the support of the poor whites of Alabama among whom he had grown up. He was elected governor in 1962 and, during the next twenty years, he served four terms—plus a virtual fifth when his wife Lurleen was elected. More important were the three presidential races he entered. After briefly touring the country as an unannounced Democratic candidate in 1964, he ran in 1968 as leader of a third party flatly opposed to the civil rights movement and won impressive percentages of the popular vote in some states. In 1972 he entered the Democratic primaries and, before he was shot and partly paralyzed in an attempted assassination, drew larger and more enthusiastic crowds than any of his opponents. His supporters were by no means confined to rednecks, and Mr. Lesher has reason to maintain that during the national swing to the right “Wallace became the mainstream.” Thereafter no serious candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination neglected to seek out George Wallace’s support, nor did Republicans. His biographer confidently declares him to be “the most influential loser in modern American politics.”
Wallace gained his national prominence and power by exploiting racial antagonism and establishing a reputation as the leading opponent of federal civil rights legislation and the foremost defender of Jim Crow law. He had, however, entered politics quite differently in the 1940s as a follower of “Big Jim” Folsom, a blundering giant, six-foot-eight. Governor Folsom was a resurgent populist, old style, at war with the “big mules”—banks, power companies, loan sharks—and a self-proclaimed champion of the little man, with benign regard for Jews and blacks. It was his liberal policies toward blacks, especially in paroling and pardoning convicts and commuting death sentences, that were mainly responsible for his downfall. Seeing that these policies, as well as Folsom’s sympathies for desegregation, were unpopular and that the hard-drinking governor’s prospects were poor, Wallace broke with him.
Wallace lost his first race for governor, in 1958, because his opponent pictured him as soft on desegregation. In fact Wallace was pledged to maintain segregation, but he linked his opponent with the Klan, which at that time he denounced along with any who accepted its support. Apart from race, according to Lesher, Wallace’s program was that of “a classical liberal.” He supported increased funds for anti-poverty programs, education, public works projects, and generous benefits for GIs, and, as he put it “help for the aged and unfortunate.” But race was enough to defeat him. While he took pains to see that this never happened again, he repeatedly denied that he ever said he had been “out-niggered” or “out-segged” by his opponent, as legend had it. There appears to be no evidence that he did, but the words stuck with him nevertheless.
By this time the Brown decision against segregated schools was four years old, and Martin Luther King had won a victory over bus segregation in Montgomery. Furthermore, a federal judge in Alabama had declared bus segregation unconstitutional and was demanding Alabama’s compliance with the law regarding schools. After his defeat in the governor’s race, Wallace had become once again a scrappy court judge; he won notoriety by defying, successively, a federal investigation into the exclusion of blacks from juries, a Justice Department subpoena of voting registrar records, and a charge of contempt of court for failing to respond to the subpoena. By risking a jail sentence, he boasted, he had stopped “a second Sherman’s march” in the very “cradle of the Confederacy.”
Alabama quickly became the most defiant state in the South and the scene of the bloodiest and most dramatic conflicts over enforcement of civil rights law and protest against racial injustice. In 1961 a Klan-led mob, without police interference, clubbed and beat up Freedom Riders defying the segregation of bus terminals in the South. Police commissioner “Bull” Connor of Brimingham made no arrests and blamed outsiders for the beatings. In the midst of the uproar, Wallace was beginning his prolonged and successful second campaign for governor, and he established himself as the embodiment of Southern resistance. Lesher stresses “his ingrained populist beliefs,” but admits that he “thundered his racial policies” on segregation. This time Wallace had support from the Klan. He won the nomination easily and, without waiting for election or inauguration, intervened in racial crises in other states, most prominently in all-out support of Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi, who encouraged a violent mob to prevent the admission of James Meredith to the university. Governor Wallace’s inaugural address in 1963, denouncing “communistic amalgamation,” was worthy of the racism of the Ku Klux Klan pamphleteer who wrote most of it. It contained the famous pledge: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Under the new governor, who had just boasted that “safety, peace and good will” prevailed in his state, violence against blacks exploded and seized national attention. In Birmingham Bull Connor’s police arrested Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy. When King encouraged thousands of black children to join in street marches, police put nearly a thousand of them into jails already packed with demonstrators. The police ran out of paddy wagons, patrol cars, and school buses to transport arrested juveniles to the overflowing prisons, and they resorted to high-powered fire hoses, police dogs, and night sticks to break up demonstrations. On the fifth day, some three thousand blacks, many of them untrained in King’s nonviolent doctrine, burst through barricades into the forbidden downtown district and its stores and attacked police with stones and bottles, bringing on more fire hoses and dogs than ever.
On the same day Governor Wallace addressed his first state of the state message to the opening session of the legislature. He blamed the disorders on Communists and Washington “weaklings who are afraid to expose the reds.” Pointing out that “the South may well control next year’s presidential election,” he vowed to “meet our enemies face to face. I will not surrender.” He also dispatched eight hundred officers to restore order in Birmingham. Four days later this enforced peace was ended by terrorist bombs, two in front of the home of King’s younger brother and two at the black-owned motel serving as headquarters for civil-rights leaders. Infuriated blacks attacked police, set two white-owned stores ablaze, and forced the withdrawal of firefighters as the fire spread to other buildings. President Kennedy, in a show of force, then dispatched troops to military bases in Alabama and on television promised “to uphold the law of the land.”
Wallace’s cause was greatly helped after the Birmingham riots by the reaction to widespread racial conflicts elsewhere. Nearly 14,000 arrests followed demonstrations in seventy-five cities in the South, and more demonstrations began to take place in the cities of the North. In the ten weeks following the Birmingham protests, according to a count by the Justice Department, 750 more demonstrations occurred throughout the nation and Wallace for the first time won significant support from Northerners. Wallace seized the opportunity for publicity and political gain and exploited it for all it was worth. An appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, in which he boldly defended himself as standing against the forces of disorder, produced a huge response, much of it favorable. His next performance attracting national attention was to “stand in the schoolhouse door” and physically defy the federal marshals sent to enforce the desegregation of the University of Alabama. By then Wallace had, in effect, worked out his own nonviolent alternative to the bloody demonstrations Ross Barnett had provoked in Mississippi. When his performance was televised, his pugnacity and apparent forthrightness, combined with his ability to suggest, without quite saying so, that antiblack prejudice was legitimate, made him into a national figure.