When I was thinking about George Wallace last night in connection with the anniversary of his shooting in Maryland 42 years ago, it occurred to me that more casual observers of political history might not realize the extent to which he anticipated and embodied so many key transition moments in modern southern politics. His election as governor of Alabama in 1962, of course, represented a sort of omega point for the last counter-revolutionary thrust of white supremacy, at a time when it was still possible for white southerners to imagine that with enough resolution and violence they might actually win the struggle against civil rights. His first term as governor was closely associated with a period of disastrous setbacks, often lubricated by national revulsion towards events in Alabama, for the cause of segregation, with the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, made inevitable by the horror of the assault on civil rights marchers in Selma, being the most crucial turning point.
Even before then Wallace became closely associated with the southern white racist strategy of seeking to reverse the momentum of the civil rights movement by guerilla raids on northern sentiment and efforts to break up the Democratic coalition. His brief and slapdash 1964 Democratic presidential primary campaign, with its impressive showings in Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland, exposed the vulnerability of northern Democrats to a racial “backlash,” much as erosion of support for black voting rights in the North helped undo Reconstruction nearly a century earlier. His independent campaign in 1968 came remarkably close to redeeming the old southern dream of giving the region the “balance of power” in a close presidential election.
Most of all, his overwhelming victories in Democratic presidential primaries in Maryland and Michigan in the wake of the Laurel shooting was the eternal high-water mark for the retrograde effort to break progress on civil rights by breaking the Democratic coalition. But typically, the lack of preparation his campaign made for harvesting delegates after this ascendant moment reduced his political influence to the shrunken condition of his own body. And in his final foray into national politics in 1976, Wallace was the ironic midwife of a Carter presidential campaign that created a strange Indian Summer for the Solid South, in which, for the first and last time, newly enfranchised African-American voters joined with a majority of white voters in the Deep South to vote for the same Democratic presidential candidate.
The denouement of Wallace’s career, in which he hung onto power in Alabama by becoming just another white Democratic pol relying on overwhelming black support, has often been treated as a tale of personal redemption. Lord only knows the truth of that proposition. But more obviously it exposed him as what he had always been: a man who would do anything to draw attention to himself and win elections.
We have no way of knowing what Wallace would have thought of the last relatively competitive Democratic candidate for governor of Alabama, an African-American congressman who triangulated against his own party in pursuit of conservative white votes, lost his primary, and decamped to Virginia as an embittered diversity trophy for the GOP. He might have advised Artur Davis that the remarkably forgiving nature of southern African-Americans did not extend to apostates moving in the wrong direction. It’s even less clear how Wallace would have felt about the racial polarization of the two parties not just in the South but in the northern precincts he once raided, or about the southern conservative ascendancy in the GOP–all developments to which he materially contributed. At a minimum, he would have to laugh at the extent to which the upper-crust Republicans who always mocked him and his followers as white trash now emulate so many of his own rhetorical themes, rely on similar downscale white constituencies, and call them to arms against those people with similar dog-whistles, many of which Wallace invented.
We really haven’t exorcised the ghost of this incredibly cynical and ostensibly unsuccessful demagogue at all, in the South or nationally. Until we have, remembering his career before and immediately after Arthur Bremer shot him down in a Maryland parking lot remains an important task for historians and political journalists, especially those who weren’t born when Wallace roamed the land as a night rider for southern vengeance.