Wallace symbolized segregation, reconciliation
ALABAMA (September 14) -- Most people remember two images from George Wallace's long and complex political life.
Wallace, the Alabama governor, standing in the schoolhouse door in 1963 as a symbol of segregation. And Wallace, the presidential candidate, bleeding from bullet wounds in a Maryland parking lot nearly a decade later.
As a young man, Wallace boxed his way through law school, became a legislator and then a judge. He first made a national mark at the 1948 Democratic National Convention by leading and losing a floor fight against a strong civil rights plank.
In 1958, Wallace made a bid to succeed Alabama's relatively liberal governor "Big" Jim Folsom, but lost to a man who had the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan.
Four years later, he ran again and won the governor's chair. His winning platform included a promise to take on the federal government for "interfering" in the state's affairs and a vow of "segregation forever."
When James Hood and Vivian Malone went to enroll at the University of Alabama in 1963, Wallace fulfilled a campaign promise by symbolically confronting an assistant U.S. attorney general. It was an action he publicly regretted a quarter century later.
'This is not race I'm talking about'
"I stood there and kept peace," Wallace said. "But it still was a bad public relations posture and I'm sorry I did it that way."
Twice in 1963, President John F. Kennedy took control of the Alabama National Guard from Wallace. That move stopped segregation in Alabama but didn't stop Wallace's political career.
He briefly ran for president in 1964. And, when he couldn't legally run for governor again, his wife ran instead and was elected.
In 1968, he was back on the presidential campaign trail. Wallace was no longer a Democrat, but the leader of the American Independent Party. He pledged, if elected, to put troops on the streets of Washington, if needed to make the city safe.
"This is not race I'm talking about. Every time I mention this they say this has racial overtones," Wallace commented. "When does it come to have racial overtones in this country to stand for law and order?"
The man who couldn't change history in 1963 did change history in 1968 by winning the presidential votes of more than 9 million people. That support came mostly at the expense of Democrat Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey ended up half a million votes behind the Republican winner, Richard Nixon.
Bullets didn't halt his career
Wallace began another presidential run in 1972. That campaign ended when Arthur Bremer cut him down with five pistol shots at a Maryland campaign rally.
Wallace won the 1972 Michigan Democratic primary while fighting for his life in a hospital. He made a triumphal appearance two months later at the Democratic National Convention, which nominated George McGovern.
Wallace would never walk again or make a serious bid for the presidency. But his political career was far from over.
He continued to win elections for governor and the support of many black voters and politicians for whom he'd once been a symbol of hate.
Finally, in 1986, Wallace acknowledged he was too old and sick to continue.
"I bid you a fond and affectionate farewell," Wallace said.
At the end of his career, many people were sorry to see him go.
'I did the best I could'
Wallace was a Democrat at a time when virtually every Southern politician was a Democrat; a segregationist at a time when, he believed, most white Southerners were as well. He was a lifelong populist who said he wanted to be remembered as the education governor.
Wallace lived to see a Republican succeed him in the Alabama statehouse and to see his son, George Wallace Jr., continue the family political tradition.
His physical condition deteriorated. Parkinson's disease, a degenerative neurologic disorder, added to the pain from the 1972 shooting. Age added to his desire to be remembered for more than segregationist defiance.
"I did the best I could for the state of Alabama and the United States," Wallace said.
Wallace met Malone and Hood for the first time in October 1996, more than 33 years after the confrontation in the schoolhouse door. They talked and reconciled.
Wallace said it was wrong, it shouldn't have happened. He also said the state of Alabama is better now as a result of the integration of its schools.
Correspondent Mark Leff contributed to this report.
Monday, September 14, 1998
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Wallace symbolized segregation, reconciliation