As dead segregationists go, former Alabama Governor and presidential candidate, George Wallace, has been getting a lot of attention lately. Wallace was a primary antagonist in the excellent movie Selma, and his son, George Wallace, Jr., wrote an article complaining that the movie portrayed his father unfairly. There are a lot of myths out there about Wallace promoted both by well intentioned people who trusted him when he told a redemption narrative later on and by people who have never understood or wanted to understand why civil rights activists protested segregation so strongly. Some people who rightly condemn Wallace have nonetheless subscribed to myths about him that associate Wallace far too closely with modern day libertarians and Tea Partiers. Hence, I thought it would be worth doing a blog post tackling some misconceptions about the man.
Myth #1: Wallace did not take racist policy positions early in his career and only became a segregationist after losing to segregationist candidate, John Patterson, in 1958.
Truth: There is an unfortunate tendency to overstate the number of white Southern politicians in the Jim Crow era who favored civil rights. Claude Pepper and Huey Long are prime example of segregationists who have often been portrayed as Southern accented Hubert Humphpreys because they were a bit less racist than the Theodore Bilbos and James Eastlands and didn’t go out of their way to disqualify blacks from every New Deal program. George Wallace early in his political career falls into the same category. It is certainly true that George Wallace was willing to make some concessions to African Americans and that Governor John Patterson was more extreme than Wallace in the 1958 Alabama Democratic Gubernatorial primary. But to claim that Wallace supported civil rights in this era is false. In 1948, he represented Alabama as a delegate at the Democratic Party National Convention and opposed President Harry Truman’s civil rights proposals. While he may have spoken respectfully to black lawyers as a judge in the 1950s, he also issued an injunction to prevent segregation signs at railroad terminals from being removed. In the 1958 Democratic Party primaries, he promised to maintain segregation. Wallace did become more bombastic in his rhetoric on segregation in the early 1960s, but the changes were much more style than substance. And even then, he continued his old practice of defending racist policies while putting forth a genteel veneer on race (he once played the “some of my best friends” card) and sending the message that he would give blacks concessions within the confines of “separate but equal.” In the 1960s, he boasted of his work to make sure that when black children in Alabama went to segregated schools, the schools were of excellent material quality. When people promote the idea that Wallace started out as a civil rights supporter, they underestimate his insidiousness and his consistent attempts to sanctimoniously justify unjust treatment of African Americans.
Myth #2: Wallace eventually repented of his past racism.
Truth: It is true that after the Civil Rights Movement, Wallace eventually apologized for his past support for segregation and presented himself as a liberal on race. However, the “repentant” Wallace still had a certain self justifying attitude toward his old statements on civil rights. According to PBS, Wallace said not long before his death, “I don’t hate blacks. The day I said ‘segregation forever,’ I never said a thing that would upset a black person unless it was segregation. I never made fun of ’em about inequality and all that kind of stuff. But my vehemence was against the federal government folks. I didn’t make people get mad against black people. I made ’em get mad against the courts.” Does this sound like a man who truly understood how horribly immoral his past support for segregation was? Or does it sound like a man who still wouldn’t acknowledge why people were so outraged by his statements and actions in the 1960s? The claim that, “I never said a thing that would upset a black person unless it was segregation” is a bit like claiming to have never said something that would upset a Jewish person except for the eight or nine times you denied the Holocaust ever happening. Furthermore, it is vital to understand that when Wallace was in politics in the 1970s and 1980s, he was operating under very different political realities than he had been operating under in the 1950s and 1960s. The Voting Rights Act had helped astronomically increase black participation in elections in the South. Alabama has a large black population, and far more of them were able to vote late in Walalce’s career than had been when he started out. These black voters had become a very important constituency in the Democratic Party, which Wallace began and ended his political tenure as a member of. The overwhelming white Alabaman support for the Democratic Party was slipping by 1982 (the year of Wallace’s final electoral victory). When Wallace was first elected governor of Alabama, the state had voted Democrat in 28 out of the last 29 presidential elections; they had gone once for Strom Thurmond’s segregationist third party run and never for a Republican. When Wallace was elected in 1982, the state had voted Republican in three of the last five presidential elections, once for Wallace’s 1968 racist third party candidacy, and only once for a Democrat. Indeed, after Wallace left office for the final time in 1987, he was succeeded by Alabama’s first ever Republican governor. As a Democrat, Wallace had no choice but to sound like a liberal on racial issues if he wanted to maximize his chance of getting large amounts of black voters. And he knew that if he failed to get heavy black support, he now risked losing. It is important to note that Wallace did not become a civil rights supporter when battles against Jim Crow laws were still being waged and taking such a stand could easily end one’s political career. While racism was still a serious problem in the 1970s and 1980s and remains one today, the legal struggle for equal rights had already been won when Wallace “saw the light.” When being a segregationist benefited his political career, he was a segregationist. When being an integrationist benefited his political career, he claimed to be an integrationist.
Myth #3: Wallace was a believer in small government.
Wallace certainly talked a great game about supporting small government, but let’s look at the facts. The most hardcore libertarian position on segregation would have been to support federal intervention overturning all government Jim Crow laws while opposing bans on discrimination in the private sector. (For the record, I part company with hardcore libertarianism when it comes to laws against private sector discrimination.) Wallace, however, supported the “right” of state and local governments to forcibly impose Jim Crow on citizens. In Wallace’s Alabama, the state government did not simply allow private citizens to practice segregation. It mandated segregation and forced blacks to pay taxes to support segregated government institutions. One of the most often neglected aspects of American legal history is the way in which governmental authority was frequently used to prop up slavery and segregation, and Wallace was a prime advocate of such persecution. What about on issues other than segregation? A believer in limited government would support a non-interventionist military policy. When running for president, Wallace called for bombing Vietnam back to the Stone Age, despite the fact that Vietnam had not attempted to invade the U.S. I have had difficulty finding his position on the draft, but he did state his belief that young men were obligated to comply if drafted by the State–hardly a position many folks at the Cato Institute would agree with. Rather than letting students pray or not pray as they saw fit without initiation from teachers, he favored teacher-led prayer in government-run schools. (Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took the opposite position.) He also believed that the government should have the power to take the lives of its citizens by executing them. Being okay with the government having authority to put people to death does not imply a high level of distrust for government. But surely he was a fiscal conservative? Well, not really. As governor, he developed a reputation as a “big spender.” As a presidential candidate, he favored increased Social Security payments, supported labor unions, and called for stringent government price controls to help farmers make a profit. He also supported public works programs which, however beneficial they may be, are not hugely popular with doctrinaire free marketers. True, he struck a conservative chord on welfare. But this was in no way inconsistent with being a New Deal-style Democrat. One of the chief inadequacies many 1930s leftists saw in the New Deal was the general lack of direct welfare payments for the poor. It was FDR himself who said that, “The lessons of history, confirmed by evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence on relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is a violation of the traditions of America.” In essence, most of Wallace’s policies were actually in line with what FDR had promoted: support for labor unions, public works programs, heavy federal spending on pensions, and government support for farmers, mixed with a hawkish foreign policy, limited welfare, punishments for those who refused to serve in the military, and white supremacy.