January 14, 2013 marks the 50th Anniversary of former Alabama Governor George Wallace's inaugural address that would begin his ascension onto the national stage and become the face of Jim Crow Segregation in 1963.
Below is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of my forthcoming book: 1963: The Year of Hope and Hostility.
George Wallace's tenacity and ambition were on display early in life and they would serve him well in his meteoric political rise, but it would also prove to be his Achilles heel and make him an unwitting ally to the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. But in 1963, Wallace was gaining national attention by offering segregationists in Alabama and elsewhere momentum to a cause that had been on the defensive for nine years.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned Plessy v. Ferguson in its Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. As a result, de jure segregation was ruled to be in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. For 58 years the South had the Supreme Court on its side. Though Brown did not end segregation, it was the first sign that the tide had shifted. On the surface it might appear somewhat contradictory that the George Wallace circa 1954 differed from the George Wallace who gave the inauguration speech in 1963.
It has been argued by a number of historians that George Wallace was primarily committed to his own political ambitions. There is no doubt that Wallace's ambition served him well in some cases but it permanently damaged him historically in others.
From 1950-52, Wallace requested and was appointed by his one-time mentor and later political adversary "Big" Jim Folsom to the board of trustees of the all-black Tuskegee Institute founded by Booker T. Washington. He also endorsed and campaigned for Stevenson in 1956. And when Wallace ran the first time for governor in 1958, he ran as an anti-Ku Klux Klan candidate, going as far as refusing their endorsement.
These episodes hardly qualified Wallace as liberal on race. There is little in Wallace's background to suggest support for Brown v. Board of Education. Being a southern moderate did not make one a de facto friend of the Negro; it simply meant that one was less vitriolic in their public support for black inequality. Wallace did, however, receive the endorsement of the NAACP in his 1958 gubernatorial bid. At the same time, Wallace's television commercials boasted of his ability to defeat the NAACP based on his 1956 convention battles, ensuring a moderate civil rights plank in the Democratic platform. In that commercial he referred to the NAACP as "enemies of the South." Wallace's moderate view on race was evident by his own words from a 1958 campaign commercial:
"I want to tell the good people of this state as a judge of the third judicial circuit if I didn't have what it took to treat a man fair regardless of his color then I don't have what it takes to be the governor of your great state."
Nevertheless, Wallace lost the 1958 governor's race by 64,000 votes, marking a turning point in Wallace's political career.
Speaking with his aides, there was common agreement that his opponent John Patterson's stance on segregation was stronger and he had enjoyed the support of the Klan. To which Wallace reportedly said, "Well boys, no other son-of-a-bitch is ever going to out-nigger me again."
Over the years there has been some dispute as to whether Wallace actually made the statement. Wallace maintained he never said it. Marshal Frady used the quote in his 1968 biography of Wallace. However, Stephen Lesher, who was Wallace's official biographer, sides with Wallace. And Bill Jones, who was with Wallace that night, cannot recall Wallace making the statement. But to borrow a line from the movie, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Therefore, this unadulterated example of political ambition run amok has become a part of the Wallace lore. Moreover, whether or not Wallace actually said that he would not be "out-niggered again" is secondary. His actions following his 1958 loss would strongly suggested that he would not be "out-niggered" again regardless of the accuracy of the quote.
The political odyssey of Wallace, who went from a young war veteran entering politics advocating progressive policies, only later to descend into the politics of racism following the loss of his lifetime dream of being elected Governor of Alabama in 1958, is a case study in unbridled ambition.
His use of demagoguery for the purposes of attaining political power and playing on racial fears catapulted him into the national spotlight for more than a decade. He would become even more of an enigma later in his political career by being returned to the governor's mansion in 1983 with the overwhelming support of the black people of Alabama whom he once sought to deny equal protection under the law.
But Monday January 14, 1963 and his subsequent actions that year have gone a long way, fairly or unfairly, in defining who Wallace was -- along with his lasting impact on the political discourse up to the present day. In fact, Wallace's inauguration speech may have set the tone for the year that would be one of hope and hostility.
January 14, 1963 was the coldest day on record in almost 80 years, but that did not deter huge crowds from celebrating the inauguration of the man who had adopted the slogan during his campaign: "Stand Up for Alabama."
Thirteen days after the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation declaring "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free," standing where Davis took the oath of office as President of the Confederacy, Wallace was on the brink of becoming the standard bearer for a politics that claimed to be supported by the Constitution, but in essence may be better defined as the pabulum of hate.
Wallace brought "tent revival" fervor to his inaugural address. The burden was not on Wallace to say something new, but to say what crowd wanted to hear in the way they wanted to hear it. He was not appealing to the better angels of the white citizens of Alabama; he instead was appealing the same primordial impulses of fear and hatred that got him elected. In this context, Wallace was the preacher charged with giving people hope based on maintaining their notion of the status quo, even if all that meant was clinging to the legalized superiority of the whiteness of their skin. His was an ambition that did not call people to reach higher, but rather it invited them to dig deeper into the abyss of evil. Though initially, it would appear that Wallace's congregation were the white people of Alabama, on January 14, 1963, he became the surrogate pastor for the entire southern region sympathetic to the cause of segregation.
Like any good charismatic preacher, Wallace began his address by deliberately using innocuous terms.
I shall fulfill my duty in working hard to bring industry into our state, not only by maintaining an honest, sober and free-enterprise climate of government in which industry can have confidence but in going out and getting it... so that our people can have industrial jobs in Alabama and provide a better life for their children. I shall not forget my duty to our senior citizens... so that their lives can be lived in dignity and enrichment of the golden years, nor to our sick, both mental and physical... and they will know we have not forsaken them. I want the farmer to feel confident that in this State government he has a partner who will work with him in raising his income and increasing his markets. And I want the laboring man to know he has a friend who is sincerely striving to better his field of endeavor. I want to assure every child that this State government is not afraid to invest in their future through education, so that they will not be handicapped on every threshold of their lives.
There was nothing in Wallace's initial remarks that warranted national coverage. The governors of California, Illinois, and New York, or any other state in the Union could have easily delivered the first 800 words of Wallace's address. But here is where any congruence with his 49 other colleagues would end. It did not take long for Wallace to give the people what they wanted. The next 4,100 words would set Wallace apart, giving those in attendance the red meat they were hoping for. Wallace was about to deliver the line that speechwriter Asa Carter, a former Klan member, had stated the night before is "gonna catch everybody."
Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny... and I say... segregation now... segregation tomorrow... segregation forever.
By placing white southerners on the side of the oppressed, Wallace used the bulk of the speech, invoking God, the spirit of self-determination, and the memory of the Founding Fathers to deliver one of the most memorable speeches of 1963. With one phrase, Wallace had simultaneously revamped the rebel yell and resurrected Stonewall Jackson.