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Katy Burns

Katy Burns: George Wallace – evil recalled

In 1958, George Wallace lost the Democratic primary for governor of Alabama. He had been endorsed by the NAACP. His opponent had the support of the KKK. An aide recalled Wallace’s reaction after that race.

“I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again.” And he wasn’t. George Wallace meant what he said.

As we witness a momentous time for civil rights and racial progress in our country – our first African-American president will attend his second inauguration ceremony tomorrow even as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day to honor the most notable civil rights leader of his generation – it’s time to look back on a less optimistic time and a despicable man who typified it. And to pray that the earlier era is really as far in the past as we want to believe it is.

Fifty years ago this month, just four years after his primary loss, Wallace was sworn in for the first of four terms as Alabama governor. In a sentence from his inaugural address, he uttered a phrase that would echo through his political history.

“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.”

Wallace is today a footnote, if that, in many history books. But whether many today have heard of him or not, he was a creature of profound importance in our turbulent recent history. He was ambitious, power-hungry. And if pandering to angry white Alabama voters was his path to power, he was happy to pander. And later to pander to equally base strains in American society.

A hero in the South, Wallace decided quickly to go national. He was a cynical demagogue, playing brilliantly to people’s emotions and, especially, fears. He found a ready audience in a nation riven by matters of race and war. He happily spread his poison across the country.

He first ran in the 1964 Democratic presidential primaries, campaigning against integration and against crime. But by 1968, he signed on as the candidate of the American Independent Party and he barnstormed the country, singling out particularly places that had been rocked by fights over integration. He eschewed direct racial appeals, instead referring to his bitter opposition to civil rights laws as respect for “states’ rights,” a transparent euphemism. Everyone knew what he meant.

And he added additional foes to his list of evils, reserving particular venom for the federal government, intellectuals and academics, and reporters.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch, author of several books on Martin Luther King Jr., said that Wallace “invented a whole language of resentment.” He stoked resentment of the federal government, referring to “pointy-headed bureaucrats” and “tax-and-spend politicians in league with

a biased national media which over-emphasized racial issues in order to concentrate power in the central government against states’ rights.”

It is rhetoric, Branch says, “that is still a part of our life.”

Wallace took his rhetoric and resentment on the road. One of those places he visited was Cleveland, where a federal judge had determined that deliberately separate-and-unequal schools had been de facto policy. Not surprisingly, the city’s insular white ethnic enclaves were in turmoil. And that’s where I was, the editor (and chief reporter and photographer) of a small, family-owned weekly paper that covered a primarily Eastern European working class neighborhood.

Demagoguery in action

Cleveland was a perfect place for Wallace to peddle his brand of poison, and it was there I encountered him and his effect on people. He was demagoguery in action, astoundingly effective in rousing his followers – and more than a little frightening.

I went with my good friend Tom, the editor of a second small weekly owned by the same company, to see what Wallace had to say. We hitched a ride on a shuttle bus for reporters to attend the speech at the city’s Public Hall. We were herded, with a clutch of other local and national reporters, into a corner of the auditorium, separated from the audience. Which, we decided later, was a good thing.

Wallace was mesmerizing, and he galvanized the audience. As he ranted about his standard list of enemies – “peaceniks,” “beatniks,” “anarchists,” “pointy-headed professors” and “draft card burners” – those in attendance were more and more inflamed. He would periodically denounce reporters with “agendas,” gesturing to us, and the crowd would turn en masse to glare venomously at the ink-stained wretches roped off like cattle in a corner.

They would mutter menacingly. We would shuffle uncomfortably.

Afterward, Tom and I got on the shuttle to go back to the lot where we’d parked our car, but somehow word got out that the bus held reporters, and the aroused, angry crowd began to approach, shouting, surrounding the bus.

We could only sit and stare and do our best to will the driver to leave. Which he did, but not before all aboard had been thoroughly chilled.

I don’t have any clippings of what I wrote about that encounter. But searching online, I did find a few accounts of it and other Wallace rallies, which had a certain tumultuous sameness.

‘Atmosphere of hate’

Los Angeles Times award-winning reporter Jack Nelson clearly went on Wallace’s swing through Ohio, and he interviewed other national reporters about their impressions. None, he said, had seen anything before like the fury fomented by the governor. He wrote about Wallace and his rallies.

“An atmosphere of hate permeates every Wallace rally. And a growing number of people who ostensibly shun racism and extremism now sit with the white supremacists, the Birchites and other radicals, their faces contorted in anger. They applaud Wallace’s formula of violence for dealing with demonstrators,” Nelson wrote that fall.

“They cheer when Wallace threatens to run over demonstrators or to “do away” with them or to appoint an attorney general who will drag them by the hair and ‘put them under a good jail.’ ”

That sounds like what I remember.

Significant votes

Ultimately, while Wallace of course lost, he won five Southern states. And he got significant votes in other states, although not likely enough to have allowed Hubert Humphrey to beat Richard Nixon, who by then was employing his own “southern strategy.”

Wallace, a purveyor of rhetorical violence (and, incidentally, a strong opponent of gun control), was shot during a later presidential campaign. The shooter wasn’t a political foe but – ironically, given Wallace’s own penchant for publicity – a sad soul who thought he could achieve instant fame by shooting a politician. Wallace survived but as a lifelong paraplegic. He loudly repented of his evil ways, and many forgave him. In his last campaign for Alabama governor, he got 90 percent of the black vote. Black voters are astonishingly forgiving of sinners.

I’m not. George Wallace willingly, happily, exported his brand of evil throughout the country. His campaign welcomed representatives from some of the most racist and anti-Semitic organizations in the country.

He took pleasure in inflaming people with his incendiary rhetoric. He manipulated his supporters brilliantly and taunted his opponents viciously – and effectively. Violent clashes between his supporters (including a fair number of police officers) and demonstrators were common.

Wallace didn’t care what happened in his wake.

If there is a hell, I hope he is writhing there in misery at the thought of the second inauguration of Barack Obama.

But Taylor Branch is right when he says the demagogic governor’s rhetoric lives on. Wallace’s “whole language of resentment” can be heard in the fear and anger and hate-filled language, particularly on the right, that so dominate our politics today.

Confrontation has replaced cooperation – reflected in and fueled by the dueling cable “news” shows that dominate and direct our national discourse – and bitter, unreasoning gridlock is the order of the day. That is George Wallace’s sorry legacy.

(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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