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Thursday, January 23, 2014

January 23, 2014: Civil Rights Histories: George Wallace

[Following up my MLK Day post, a series on some of the crucial complexities of the Civil Rights movement and related histories and stories. The weekend will feature another crowd-sourced post, so please share both your takes on these posts and some of the histories and stories you’d highlight. Thanks!]

On why we shouldn’t judge a lifetime by its worst moments—but why we do have to focus on them.
One of the most iconic 20th century American moments and images has to be Alabama Governor George Wallace standing in front of the auditorium door at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in June 1963, trying to prevent the enrollment of the institution’s first African American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood. Three months later, Wallace would do the same not once but four times, attempting to stop schoolchildren from enrolling at elementary schools in Huntsville (and thus integrating primary or secondary schools for the first time in the state). And in these deeply un-American moments Wallace was simply putting into practice what he had argued in the most famous line from his January 1963 inaugural address: “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.”
If we only remember Wallace for those 1963 moments, however, we miss the fact that both earlier and later in life he took significantly different positions on race and related issues. During his first, 1958 campaign for governor, he was endorsed by the NAACP and soundly defeated by a candidate aligned with the KKK (against whom Wallace had spoken); it was in reference to this defeat that Wallace later noted, “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been parf of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.” And having become and stayed governor through precisely that kind of racist rhetoric, Wallace late in his life and career underwent another series of striking shifts: apologizing to civil rights leaders in 1979 for his earlier support of segregation; noting of his schoolhouse stand that “I was wrong. Those days are over, and they ought to be over”; and in his final term as governor (1983-1987) appointing two African Americans to his cabinet for the first time in the state’s history.
So it’d be inaccurate to remember Wallace solely for those worst moments. But on the other hand, not all moments are created equal—not in an individual’s life, and certainly not in a nation’s history. It’s fair to say that the early to mid-1960s were one of the most pivotal such moments in the histories of race and equality in America, likely paralleled only by those during and immediately after the Civil War. And it’s also fair to say that, while (as I wrote in yesterday’s post) entire communities in the South and throughout America opposed that progress, few if any individuals represented and spoke for that opposition more clearly and strongly than did George Wallace. People (like those three civil rights workers, and many many more) were attacked and killed as a result of that opposition, to name only its most overtly violent effect. Should we remember George Wallace in connection with those attacks and deaths? I think we have to.
Next complex history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Civil Rights histories or stories you’d highlight?

1 comment:

  1. My colleague Joe Moser writes, "Hey Ben,
    Great post! I'm reminded of the great Drive-By Truckers album SOUTHERN ROCK OPERA. "The Southern Thing," "Birmingham," and the spoken-word track "Three Great Alabama Icons" offer similarly nuanced takes on George Wallace and that era. It's all about "the duality of the Southern thing."