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.
As usual, Wallace insisted that his “stand” against integration had nothing to do with race and was only part of his defense of states’ rights against federal intervention, bullying, and force. He took special pride in yielding only to federal force and in maintaining decorum and public order in doing so. On the night he turned away the federal marshals, however, after an eloquent speech on the incident broadcast by President Kennedy, a sniper shot and killed Medgar Evers, head of the NAACP in Mississippi. The murder set off a summer of riots, racial protests, and peaceful demonstrations throughout the country. The climax came in the march on Washington of August 28, 1963, when a huge crowd listened to Martin Luther King’s famous address before the Lincoln Memorial. That was followed on September 15 by the worst atrocity of the period, when Klansmen bombed a church in Birmingham, killing four young black girls.
Wallace’s defensive strategy at this point was to take the offensive. Already with his eye on national politics, he set out in a bold barnstorming campaign in the North, starting with the Ivy League colleges in which hostility to him was most heavily concentrated, or so it was thought. In fact, his speeches at Harvard, Dartmouth, Smith, and Brown were sprinkled with disarming humor and blasts against federal assaults on individual and states’ rights; he was applauded far more than he was hissed and booed, and treated to ovations on some campuses. He was seen as the spirited opponent of a smug liberal establishment. Encouraged by his success and the national attention he was attracting, Wallace became an unannounced candidate in the 1964 Democratic presidential primaries and toured nine Western and Midwestern states, speaking to overflow crowds against the civil rights bill before Congress, and blaming the Communists for causing the Birmingham riots. To a wildly cheering crowd at the University of Oregon he promised that “The Confederate flag will fly again!” So it went also in the Midwest. In the Wisconsin primary of April 7 Wallace won 25 percent of the total vote, with nearly as many Republicans as Democrats voting. He invested heavily in television time, his popularity soared, auguring more primary successes ahead. In July, however, when the Republicans nominated Goldwater, he saw himself displaced and his following preempted, and he withdrew from the race.
The year following was crowded with civil rights crises and repression of blacks by police. By means of violence and intimidation by the police most of the crusaders of Freedom Summer had been diverted to Mississippi, leaving Alabama’s potential black voters largely unregistered. Early in 1965 Martin Luther King turned his attention to the “rigid exclusionary” Alabama city of Selma, where only 2 percent of the 15,000 black citizens were registered to vote. Demonstrations in favor of voting rights took place during eight weeks and protesters were brutally attacked by the police; but Wallace managed to administer the violence through his deputies without being directly implicated in it.
In early spring King called a march from Selma to the capitol in Montgomery, trying to force Wallace to take a stand on the issue of voting rights. But the marchers were violently halted at the edge of Selma in a notorious assault by police that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” the culmination of months of violence. After face-saving compromises at the White House between Wallace and President Johnson and a speech by Johnson to a joint session of Congress in support of the voting rights bill which included the words “we shall overcome,” the march from Selma to Montgomery went forward. It was joined in its last miles by some 25,000 supporters from all parts of the country, including no small number of middle-class, middleaged liberals from Northern states. They were described by Governor Wallace as “every left-wing, pro-Communist, fellow traveler and Communist in this country.” But while Wallace was boasting of his restraint one of the demonstrators was murdered on the road to Montgomery, making a mockery of his claim, and this, together with King’s evident triumph, appeared to dim the Governor’s political future.
Then, five days after the Voting Rights Act became law in August of 1965, Los Angeles exploded with six days of rioting, looting, and burning in black neighborhoods that took thirty-four lives and required 4,000 National Guard troops to control. This outdid anything in Alabama and touched off another series of summer riots, 250 of them major ones, mainly in cities outside the South. Once again Wallace’s fortunes were rescued by violent events elsewhere. Deluged with support from Northern Democrats and Republicans, who made it clear they shared his racism, he was restored to national prominence and gained a popularity he never had before, Wallace laid plans for a third-party campaign for president in 1968. He got his wife elected governor with 63 percent of the vote, including a majority of the black vote, and set forth on a whirl-wind national campaign against federal tyranny that drove huge crowds to frenzy and commanded time on TV. A poll by The New York Times in early October suggested that an election at that time would have given him twice as many electoral votes as Hubert Humphrey. During the next month, Nixon’s “Southern strategy” of trying to match Wallace’s appeal on racial issues undercut Wallace’s strength and he wound up with a little over 13.5 percent of the national vote and carried only five states, all of them Southern.
Undaunted, he set out to regain the governor’s office as a springboard for another race for president in 1972, but to his amazement in the primary his vote fell far behind the incumbent, Albert Brewer, who promised to be Alabama’s “full-time governor,” and who adopted a less belligerent tone toward Washington than Wallace. In the runoff he then resorted to what Mr. Lesher admits was “the dirtiest campaign in Alabama history,” full of race hatred, bigotry, open appeals to Klan and the Birchites, and the crudest of personal slurs against his opponent. His campaign manager conceded, “This was the only way we could win it.” Wallace won by a very narrow margin, but he was temporarily reduced to relying solely on his redneck and racist constituency.
After that performance Wallace did a back-stage change of costume, shed much of his rough racist manner, and reappeared on the national stage for the presidential primaries of 1972. He carried every county in the Florida primary and by mid-May had ridden the Democratic swing to the right long enough to make a strong showing in seven other states. Then at a Maryland rally five bullets were fired at him by a crazed man, one of which penetrated his spinal canal, paralyzing him from the waist down. He remained in chronic pain. A wave of sympathy after the shooting only partly accounts for his victories the next day in Maryland and Michigan, where he won a larger percentage of the votes than McGovern, and than Humphrey had four years before, and 51 percent of the total in Michigan, with more gains in delegates to come. Another sign of his rising prestige was the Navy medical plane that President Nixon sent to fly Wallace from a Birmingham hospital to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in July. There he reached the pinnacle of his political career by addressing the convention from his wheelchair and winning nearly four hundred first-ballot votes.
Never one to give up, Wallace won two more terms as governor and went on to announce he would run for president in 1976, building a huge campaign fund. In mid-campaign, however, while boarding a plane he fell out of his wheelchair, and the accident drew attention to his physical weakness, virtually ending his chance at the presidency. By then both parties and nearly all candidates had adopted his views opposing taxes and big government, and his monopoly on the “Wallace constituency” had been broken. No candidate forgot that constituency, however, and many then and later came to Montgomery to visit and seek his support, among them Nelson Rockefeller, Jimmy Carter, and Jesse Jackson.
There followed another self-transformation, and this the most improbable of all. Before his final race for governor in 1976 Wallace came to meetings with the state’s blacks to publicly confess his sins against them, to repent for his vehement support of segregation and racism, and to beg them to forgive him. He repeated his apologies on state-wide television. He needed their forgiveness—not to mention their votes. In his previous race for governor he had been spared defeat by 30 percent of the black vote—won by appointing blacks to key positions and openly seeking black support locally. In his last race he wanted more. And, lo, they responded with almost unanimous support in his last election. His victory was followed by an emotional rush to forgiveness on the one side and an outpouring of contrition and compensatory favors and deeds on the other. Tuskeegee, the black college, awarded Wallace an honorary degree and he appointed a black press secretary. A poll of blacks in 1986 held him to be the best governor the state had ever had. He appointed 160 blacks to state governing boards and set out to double the number of black voter registrars. He went, unannounced, to the Dexter Street Baptist church in Montgomery where King had launched the civil rights movement and apologized to the congregation. He crowned the black homecoming queen of the university where he had stood in the schoolhouse door, and he boasted with some plausibility that Alabama had made faster progress toward integration than any other state. Many black leaders came to forgive him, among them Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson, and the brother of the murdered Medgar Evers.
What with this happy ending to Mr. Lesher’s story and the seeming candor with which he records the long and ugly record of racism, injustice, and violence that came before, it is not difficult to understand the virtually unanimous praise the book has received, both here and in England. This reception might also owe something to Lesher’s attempts to soften ugly facts with defensive statements about Wallace. Lesher contends that “Wallace’s achievements as governor were ignored or cheapened by critics.” Deploring historians who “pigeonhole Wallace as a racist,” he emphasizes the governor’s “populist” programs of taxing the rich and helping the poor and unfortunate. “Though by no means universally applauded,” he concludes, “it is this, rather than the attempted obstruction of integration, that is Wallace’s legacy.” As for his mistakes, racial offenses, and injustices, Lesher writes, they should be assessed by fairminded and generous readers with due regard for his humble confessions, his contrition, his repentance, and the forgiveness expressed by black victims.
This tale of remorse and rehabilitation, and the evidence offered to support it, deserve closer and more critical examination than they have so far received. Lesher’s account of Wallace’s populism shows a very thin understanding of that movement. To a biographer of Tom Watson, a more authentic populist, it would appear that Lesher has rather mechanically tried to turn Watson’s story upside down. Watson became a notorious demagogue during his last years, but he began his career by courageously fighting on behalf of poor people, black and white. Lesher contends that “Wallace, like the original populists of the 1890s, distrusted banks and the rich while advocating tax reforms that would favor farmers and working people.” This is contradicted by his own evidence. He describes, for instance, a deal Wallace struck with the state’s three largest banks by which he raised the limits upon consumer interest rates. He authorized local governments to float bonds and construct tax exempt arrangements for northern corporations, inducements to attract them southward in order to exploit low-wage non-union labor. These were exactly the kind of measures that Populists of the 1890s most abhorred.
The tones of exoneration that can frequently be found in Lesher’s account of Wallace’s racist policies are rarely convincing. He can speak of “faint whiffs of Klan involvement with Wallace,” when he is quite aware that a notorious Klansman was the governor’s favorite speechwriter, and he can write of Wallace’s “strong repugnance for the organization” in spite of Wallace’s political ties with the Klan and his favors for its members. “In becoming the apotheosis of the Southern ideal of fighting the good fight,” he writes, “Wallace undoubtedly clarified the inevitability of integration while psychologically easing the people’s sense of defeat.” Another Lost Cause, honorably lost!
It remains to explain, if possible, how the biographer could have arrived at such conclusions. I think his main trouble lies with the sources he used, as well as the sources he failed to use. Far the most conspicuous sources cited are interviews with participants and “recollections” of witnesses of events that took place a quarter of a century or more ago. Such off-the-cuff testimony is notoriously unreliable and often self-serving. Among the many important sources Mr. Lesher failed to use are such highly relevant manuscript collections as the papers of President Kennedy, President Johnson, and President Nixon. If he visited such collections he apparently contented himself with listening to recorded interviews, called “oral histories.”
Readers of the biography are told that between January 1987 and July 1991 Wallace granted the author more than sixty hours of interviews in thirty-five sessions, and that he did this because of his belief that Lesher would “treat him fairly and respectfully.” What we are not told, but what was revealed in the press later, was that a contract was signed agreeing to divide royalties and proceeds of the book equally between the biographer and his subject. Transcripts of the interviews were to be added to the Wallace Papers, which the governor was to have donated to the state, to be placed in the library of the University of Alabama in Birmingham. But the tapes of the Wallace interviews have apparently disappeared; Lesher has not, as I write, turned over the “transcripts” of the interviews as promised, and the Wallace Papers are being transferred to something called the Wallace Foundation, where Wallace and, after his death, his estate will no doubt retain strict control of their use. It is doubtful how much use the papers themselves would be, or how much Lesher could make of them, since, he writes, they remain uncatalogued in cartons “piled helter skelter” amid Wallace’s mementos of a lifetime.
References to transcripts of the interviews are rivaled in frequency in the latter part of the book by what are termed “recollections” of many people who knew Wallace, mainly journalists, including numerous “Lesher recollections.” Checked for accuracy by a well-informed scholar who has sent me his findings, the footnotes revealed an appalling amount of error and carelessness—speeches that were not given, events that did not happen, persons and places confused, sources misquoted or ignored. The fault-seeking critic could doubtless add many more shortcomings to the list. But to do so would fall short of an adequate assessment of the book, its author, or its subject.
One must think of Lesher during his sixty hours beside the pain-ridden figure in the wheelchair. As a reporter for newspapers and for Newsweek, Lesher had covered Wallace’s activities since the 1950s. Reviewing those years, his memory of them must have been clouded by the pathos of the present scene. Although he had generally taken the opposite side on race questions, he confessed to being “drawn to this magnetic, enigmatic, thoroughly irrepressible man” and he “grudgingly began to note qualities in him that, frankly, I respected.” Lesher knew that after all the efforts of atonement (Wallace had told the congregation at King’s church that now he too knew what pain meant), Wallace “wanted desperately to become personally respectable.” In the interviews with Lesher he said that other Southerners, such as Lyndon Johnson, Sam Ervin, and Hugo Black, had been rehabilitated and repeatedly asked, “Why won’t they rehabilitate me?” Admitting shortcomings in his efforts, Wallace’s friend evidently felt the present book was the best he could do to answer the question and provide some measure of rehabilitation. To judge by the book’s reception in the press, Lesher has so far been remarkably successful. A careful study remains to be written accounting both for Wallace’s shrewdness and popularity and for his capacity for viciousness.
October 20, 1994