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Published on Wednesday, April 26, 2000 in the New York Times
The Murderous Era of George C. Wallace
by Howell Raines
The calculated racism and financial corruption of the George Wallace regime in Alabama has been amply recorded in Dan Carter's 1995 biography, "The Politics of Rage," and in a new two-part television documentary, "George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire." The documentary, broadcast earlier this week as part of the Public Broadcasting Service's "American Experience" series, is particularly good on Mr. Wallace's decision to abandon the progressive racial views he espoused in a 1958 campaign for governor and to re-invent himself as a segregationist in time for his successful candidacy in 1962. Mr. Wallace's own daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, even provides an explanation for this cold sacrifice of principle: "He loved the power."

Of course, Mr. Wallace was not the first politician to trade core principle for power. What sets him apart is the price in blood that other citizens paid for what was, to him, a simple matter of narcissistic political gamesmanship. For many of us who came of age in Alabama during his heyday, that part of Mr. Wallace's legacy deserves continuing emphasis.

George Wallace should not be allowed to walk into history as an unusually gifted regional demagogue who helped usher in a new conservative era in American politics. He was also a chief law enforcement officer whose public comments incited violence and whose years in office produced a string of political murders -- many of them unsolved and unprosecuted.

On the stump, Mr. Wallace always had a ready answer for the murder epidemic that hit Alabama after his election. He personally did not condone violence. But as civil rights leaders pointed out, that begged the question of the impact Mr. Wallace's rhetorical violence had on the gross and simple minds of back-alley racists.

In a personal meeting in 1965, the Rev. Joseph L. Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference reminded Mr. Wallace of their shared Methodist religion and warned the governor that his defiant demand that Alabamians "stand up for segregation" gave moral permission for thugs to use their pistols, lead pipes and dynamite. Mr. Wallace responded to such preachments with what Dan Carter correctly labeled a "reckless disregard" for the impact of his words on public safety in Alabama.

It was a point that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made repeatedly. In "George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire," we see Dr. King on Sept. 16, 1963, one day after the church bombing that killed four black girls in Birmingham. "The governor said things and did things which caused these people to feel that they were aided and abetted by the highest officer in the state," Dr. King said. "The murders of yesterday stand as blood on the hands of Governor Wallace."

After 37 years, there may be a tendency to regard Dr. King's words as hyperbolic. But the statistics bear him out. Non-fatal beatings and bombings were common during the terms of Mr. Wallace's predecessors, but investigations of Klan perpetrators went forward energetically under Mr. Wallace's mentor, Gov. James E. Folsom.

Things changed when Mr. Wallace came in. By my count, 12 people died in Alabama in civil rights slayings in Mr. Wallace's first term between 1963 and 1966. There were only five state trials resulting from these deaths and only two convictions. After compiling this remarkable record of inability to prevent mayhem on the public roads, Mr. Wallace then offered himself for the presidency as a law-and-order candidate.

The incompetence of law enforcement in Alabama under Governor Wallace was mind-boggling. District attorneys, many of whom owed their election or appointment to him, felt little pressure to prosecute civil rights murders. When forced to do so by national opinion, they often favored manslaughter over murder indictments.

Most tellingly, Mr. Wallace turned the highway patrol over to Albert J. Lingo, whose lack of law enforcement expertise made him a laughingstock even among segregationists within his own department. Colonel Lingo was famously close to many violent citizens. In one notorious incident, a segregationist gunman reportedly called Mr. Lingo directly from a Black Belt town to say, "I just shot two preachers. You better get on down here." The shooter was acquitted.

In the 1963 church bombing, Colonel Lingo destroyed the promising investigations being conducted by two seasoned homicide detectives, Ben Allen and James Hancock, by ordering the premature arrest of their chief suspect, Robert (Dynamite Bob) Chambliss. It would be 13 years before Mr. Chambliss could be convicted.

All this is simply to say that there is a part of the Wallace legacy that needs to be remembered alongside his colorful oratory, his racial pandering and his impact on the national political scene. He was also a lawyer who fomented a lawless environment with regard to the Constitution and a governor whose failure to demand enforcement of basic criminal law in highly publicized capital cases will not, one hopes, be matched again by any future state executive.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company


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