An image of George Wallace turned up on my Facebook news feed yesterday. Seven years ago, I posted a photo along with speculation about how George Wallace’s political career would have turned out of he had somehow managed to chart a different course during the segregationist era. He was a moderate Democrat at heart with no serious animus toward blacks and no seriously vested interest in segregation – at least, no more than the average white Southerner of the time.
I’ve written many times about the Wallace legacy – I find him one of the most fascinating and enigmatic political figures in Southern and U.S. history – and I’ll probably keep thinking and writing about him for the rest of my life. He was not only a gifted politician but also an uncharacteristically intelligent one. He was also a visionary who transformed American politics despite coming from what was considered by pundits to be a provincial backwater.
He started out no conservative. His former close friend and fellow University of Alabama law student, U.S. Judge Frank Johnson, once related that arguing with Wallace essentially amounted to debating a New Deal socialist.
As a student at the University of Alabama, Wallace was an outsider. His idol was Carl Elliott, a wonder kid from my native Alabama county of Franklin who worked his way through Alabama and eventually was elected student body president, beating the student establishment know as “The Machine,” which exists to this day. Elliot is remembered as one of Alabama’s most progressive-leaning Alabama congressmen.
Wallace was a Democratic Party stalwart who refused to bolt the 1948 Democratic Convention over the party’s proposed civil rights plank in the party’s platform. As an Alabama circuit judge, he cultivated a reputation for affording black litigants courteous treatment in his courtroom. His bitter defeat in 1958 at the hands of John Patterson changed all of this, driving him to become an ardent segregationist.
In a very real sense he sold his political soul for the sake of political expediency.
I’ve always wondered how differently the Wallace legacy would have been if our 45th Alabama governor had somehow managed not to carry the segregationist legacy.
Moreover, I have also wondered about how differently Wallace’s fortunes may have turned out if he had avoided an assassination attempt. Would he have brokered some sort of John Connally-style arrangement with Nixon, perhaps even serving in a cabinet post? Could he have prevented Jimmy Carter’s assent in 1976? All of these historical what if’s are the grounds of lots of fascinating historical speculation.