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
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
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.
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
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