A geographical history of George Wallace

George Wallace, who served seventeen years as Governor of Alabama, is known to the world for a variety of things but most notably as the icon of racist resistance to Civil Rights in the 1960s. However, popular views of Wallace are characterized by broad stereotypes and symbols which ignore many interesting aspects of his career and of Alabama politics in general. This post aims not to ‘revise’ popular judgement on Wallace, but rather to offer an analysis of his career and of Alabama state politics between the 50s and 80s through use of one of my favourite mediums, maps.

The map below shows the results of all Alabama elections, including (obviously) primaries in which Wallace (or his surrogate wife Lurleen) was involved in between 1958 and 1982. Results are obtained from OurCampaigns.org, which despite being a headache to navigate offers an unexploited wealth of information about American politics. Its sections on Alabama are particularly top-notch.

Similar to all other Confederate states, Alabama was dominated by the Democratic Party between the end of Reconstruction in 1876 and, at the presidential level, 1964. At the state level, however, Democrats held the governor’s mansion between 1874 and 1987 and the state legislature only fell to the Republicans in 2010. Fairly obviously, the Democratic dominance of the state worked alongside disenfranchisement of blacks and poor whites through poll taxes, literacy tests and documents such as the 1901 Alabama Constitution. A copy of a voter registration form in Alabama is here, and a copy of a sample civic literacy test is here. Both are fascinating documents, and even those with good knowledge of American constitutional law and politics will find some parts of the literacy test hard. Section 182 of the Alabama Constitution, which has not been repealed, provides a good example of legal disenfranchisement of a whole slew of people, notably those who are “idiots” and those convicted of “crimes against nature” (homosexuality), “miscegenation” or “moral turpitude”.

However, unlike Mississippi and South Carolina during the era of the Solid South, Alabama was not entirely a one-party authoritarian state. Those who could vote could do so rather freely, which explains why Democrats never reached the peaks achieved by Democrats in Mississippi and South Carolina where the vote was rigged to result in elections giving over 95% to Democrats. Yet, turnout in Alabama was, like in the rest of the Solid South, ridiculously low.

Prior to the rise of George Wallace, the Alabama Democratic Party lacked a dominant faction or figure similar to Georgia’s Eugene Talmadge, Memphis’ E.H. Crump’s machine or Virginia’s Byrd Organization. There were even some remarkably progressive moderates within the party, most notably Big Jim Folsom, who served as governor between 1947 and 1951 and again between 1955 and 1959 (governors could not succeed themselves until 1968). Folsom, a populist who achieved some social measures, was also a moderate on the race issue, trying to build a coalition of blacks and poor whites to break the dominance of the Democratic Party’s elite leadership. He was also, however, very corrupt.

The 1958 Democratic primary included a whole barrage of candidates, the most notable of which were Attorney General John Patterson and Barbour County circuit judge George C. Wallace. Patterson was a hardcore segregationist and received the endorsement of the KKK. On the other hand, Wallace, who had been a rather liberal judge, ran as a racial moderate and even received the endorsement of the NAACP. Patterson received 31.8% in the first round and Wallace got 26.3%. The map reflects a very friends-and-neighbors type of primary, which is commonplace in a lot of primaries then and now. In the runoff, Patterson handily defeated the moderate Wallace with 55.7% against 44.3% for Wallace. Wallace’s strength was confined to his native southeastern Alabama, notably taking 91.5% in Barbour County.

A bitter ambitious Wallace commented that evening that he had been “outniggered” by John Patterson and vowed to never be “outniggered” again. Most former racists who seek forgiveness years later often claim that they were not racists by conviction, but rather race-baiters by necessity. Patterson, who is still alive and voted for Obama in 2008, commented that you had no chance at winning if you weren’t a race-baiter. Wallace realized that in 1958 and by the 1962 Democratic gubernatorial primary, he was the traditional radical segregationist candidate. Beyond the racial rhetoric, however, Wallace was more of a ‘populist’ than a ‘conservative’ or ‘reactionary’. As a state legislators, he had decried the “Big Mules” – bankers, railroad owners and cotton mill owners. As governor, he had a populist economic policy which included rural development and free textbooks for schoolchildren. When he ran for President, he campaigned as the Southern populist against the wealthy classes and supported a generous welfare state – for those who ‘deserved it’. Yet, economic populism never took the forefront in Wallace’s early campaigns. As he noted, white voters were ambivalent when he talked to them about roads and such stuff, but they “stomped the floor” when he talked about “the niggers”.

Wallace was opposed in 1962 by his former mentor, former Governor Jim Folsom, who was disappointed that Wallace had abandoned his moderate integrationist ideals. Folsom was one of the rare few Southern politicians who remained true to his beliefs, and who despite being a crook, merits some recognition as an early racial moderate. Folsom, although he was from Wallace’s region of southeastern Alabama, built up his electoral base in northern Alabama. Northern Alabama was outside King Cotton’s great empire in 1860, and as such has always had a smaller black population (which led to less racial tensions) and had, after the New Deal, a working-class tradition fueled by the load of TVA dams in the region around Huntsville. Northern Alabama was also slightly less Democratic than the Black Belt, because poorer white farmers and workers felt little attachment to the slave-owning plantocracy of the Black Belt. ‘Less Democratic’ means that Democrats won 65-75% instead of 75-95% of the vote, with the notable exception of Winston County, a hardcore Unionist enclave dating back to 1860 (as such, it was the Republican Party’s only base in the state until the growth of suburbia).

The other main candidate was Tuscaloosa attorney Ryan de Graffenried, who was also a racial moderate. Folsom’s chances were hurt both by the fact that his corruption hurt him with the middle-class voters and because he had already taken to the bottle by 1962 and appeared visibly drunk in a television appearance. Graffenried, strong in urban areas such as Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, beat out Folsom for second taking 25.2% against 25.05% for Folsom. Wallace took 32.49%. Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, the man who later sent the dogs after black protesters in Birmingham, took 3.6% and ended up in fifth.

Wallace easily beat the moderate Graffenried in the runoff, taking 55.9% against 44.1% for Graffenried who carried Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and parts of Folsom’s primary base in northern Alabama. He also won heavily black Macon County with 60.3%, which means that blacks had gained the right to vote there prior to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Wallace, however, easily trounced him with over 70% of the vote in the rest of the Black Belt and southeastern Alabama. Wallace won the general election, and upon his inauguration in January 1963 pronounced the words for which he will stick to him: segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.

Deeply ambitious and with eyes on the Presidency, Wallace did not like term limits much when his term came to a close in 1966. He attempted to change the constitution, but when that failed, he got his wife Lurleen (who already had cancer) to run as his surrogate. Lurleen Wallace won the primary by the first round, taking 54% against 19.4% for Alabama’s liberal Attorney General Richmond Flowers. John Patterson won a pitiful 3.5% and Folsom won 2.7%. By 1966, blacks had started to be registered en masse following the VRA, and they largely voted for the liberal Flowers over the Wallaces. Wallace won with only 63.4% in the general election, with conservative Republican representative (elected in the 1964 Goldwater landslide of the South) James D. Martin winning 31%.

Lurleen Wallace died of cancer on July 5, 1968; while her husband was running for President for the American Independent Party. Discussion of Wallace’s presidential campaigns would require a whole new post, so this will focus only on the results of the 1968 election in Alabama. Needless to say, Alabama was Wallace’s best state with 65.9% of the vote against 18.7% for Humphrey and 14% for Nixon. Blacks had started to be registered by 1968, but they hadn’t started voting en masse. As such, Wallace won most of the Black Belt, albeit by narrow margins while Humphrey won only three heavily black counties such as Macon. Wallace had tremendous appeal throughout Alabama, even in the least Dixiecratic area of northern Alabama (he even won Unionist Winston County).

As much as Wallace had fought tooth-and-nail against desegregation in 1963, by 1968 he had slightly modified his rhetoric to fit the day. Instead of going with outright racism and direct abuse on African-Americans, he preferred to talk in terms of ‘states’ rights’, ‘law and order’ , ‘welfare cheats’ and an African-American ‘bloc vote’. As such, Wallace’s 1968 campaign was different from the one-issue ephemeral Dixiecrat campaigns such as Strom Thurmond’s 1948 campaign. He had a broader message, and appealed to a much wider electorate than the traditional racist Dixiecrats of the Deep South.

Lurleen’s Lieutenant Governor, Albert Brewer, succeeded her in office in 1968. Originally a Wallace conservative, Brewer completely overhauled his rhetoric and became a moderate, perhaps because that would be the only way for him to stay in power in his own right. To stay in power, Brewer was the first governor to directly appeal to black voters in an attempt to build himself a liberal coalition of blacks, working-class poor whites and urban intellectuals. Wallace, who lived for electoral campaigns, was eying a comeback in 1970 which would consolidate his local power ahead of another run for President in 1972, this time as a Democrat.

The 1970 primary was Wallace’s toughest and his local and national political career hinged on its outcome. Nixon, carefully calculating that a Wallace defeat would likely weaken Wallace’s chances in 1972, endorsed Brewer. Wallace retorted with one of Alabama’s nastiest campaigns, calling Brewer a sissy. Brewer made much of Wallace’s ambitions, notably by hammering that he’d be a “full-time governor”, while Wallace campaigned on more national issues such as busing. In the May 5 primary, Brewer edged out Wallace with 42% against 40.8%. Businessman Charles Woods took 14.7%, with arch-racist KKK leader Asa Carter taking 1.5% and Folsom taking 0.4%. Wallace lost the Black Belt and the urban centres of Birmingham, Montgomery, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa while performing poorly in northern Alabama.

In the June 2 runoff, Wallace saved his political career, edging out Brewer with 51.56% against 48.44% for the sitting Governor. Brewer trounced him in the Black Belt, Birmingham and the Huntsville area, but Wallace prevailed almost everywhere else. Wallace won 74.5% of the vote in the general election, with his closest contender being black activist John Cashin of the pro-civil rights Alabama National Democratic Party. Cashin won four majority black counties.

An assassination attempt on May 15, 1972 left Wallace paralyzed and aborted his successful presidential campaign, but Wallace ran for reelection in 1974. It was his easiest primary ever, trouncing Gene McLain 64.8% to 30%. Folsom took 3%. McLain did well in the Black Belt but only won Macon County. Wallace served as governor until 1978, at which point the Democrats nominated former Republican Fob James, a conservative, who was not connected to any old faction and won the primaries. Fob James was a poor governor, though he returned to power in 1994, this time as a Republican.

By this time, Wallace had converted to George Wallace version 4.0. He had become a born-again Christian and apologized to the black community for his past wrongs. A shadow of his past self, Wallace sought a final term in 1982. He faced Lt. Governor George McMillan and Speaker Joe McCorquodale in the primary. Wallace dominated the first round, taking 42.5% against 29.6% for McMillan and 25.1% for McCorquodale. For the first time in his career, Wallace won a substantial amount of black votes, enough black votes to save him in the runoff. Wallace defeated McMillan 51.2% to 48.8%. Unlike Brewer in 1970, McMillan didn’t trounce Wallace in the Black Belt (though he probably narrowly won it). For the first time since 1966, the Republican candidate, Montgomery mayor Emory M. Folmar, was not a sacrificial lamb and stood a decent chance.  Wallace won 57.6% of the vote against 39.1% for Folmar. Folmar won the urban areas of Montgomery, Birmingham and Huntsville. However, Wallace won the Black Belt for the first time in the last election of his career.

George Wallace was perhaps not the arch-racist he was made out to be. Arguably, he was never a hardcore fanatic racist. Instead, he was an opportunistic race-baiter who used race to get elected, as Patterson admitted. When Wallace lost in 1958, perhaps running as his true populist self, he jumped on the race-baiting discriminatory rhetoric which Patterson had won on and went on to win on it in his own right in 1962. However, when the days of segregation were past, Wallace adapted his views. While he hadn’t done a full 180 by 1968 and 1970, he had moderated the race-baiting and turned it into a mix of traditional Dixie populism and right-wing law n’ order rhetoric. The question is whether Wallace and others’ opportunistic race-baiting is better or worse than the ideological fanatical racism.

His 1968 campaign for President laid the groundwork for the Southern Strategy which Nixon won on in 1972 and, arguably, previewed the gradual evolution of working-class white voters, dismayed by the violence of 1968 and the liberal society of the national Democrats, away from the New Deal Democrats towards the Republicans. This shift perhaps culminated in 2008, when Obama did almost historically poorly for a Democrat with certain old white working-class voters. In this, Wallace’s campaign was significant in that it previewed the future Republican rhetoric which has moved away from old ‘intellectual’ conservatism towards the ‘populist’ conservatism of people such as Sarah Palin. As such, maybe it isn’t shocking that George Wallace’s politically unfortunate son is a Tea Partier.

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Posted on February 22, 2011, in Alabama, Political and Electoral Demographics, Regional and local elections, U.S.A.. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Fascinating. I live with an Alabaman so I had an inkling of what it is like but this is good stuff. Some random thoughts:

    In John Pilger’s book Heroes there’s an incredible chapter on Wallace and how in his view it was Lurleen who taught him how to campaign effectively. Its a much more sympathetic portrait than you’d expect.

    I never realised what a recent development the “black belt” was electorally, the first time I can clearly see it on these maps is as late as 1968. Of course the difficulty black people had voting before then may explain that.

    The Alabama constitution which you mention is the longest constitution of any kind in the world. It is a staggering 340,136 words long. Some of it is a great read, if you like your politics verbose and bonkers. I particularly enjoy Section 90 “on the correct procedures for the annexation of Foreign territory”

    In the 1960s Wallace’s son George Wallace Jr (himself now a senior Alabama politician) was in an unsigned psychedelic rock band called “George Wallace Jr”. Their song “Think!” was on a CD I randomly found in France and its actually really good.

  2. The Black Belt was clearly defined post-VRA when blacks could vote. Before that, it was less clear because only whites there voted but it was consistently the most Democratic region under Jim Crow. During Reconstruction, the Black Belt voted heavily Republican because blacks could vote back then but got disenfranchised sometime between 1876 and 1900.

    The Alabama Constitution is indeed an incredible document… in that it regulates the most minute things like bingo in Barbour County and Tuscaloosa County’s chicken farms… and also has loads of racist clauses which may or may not have been repealed. Interracial marriage was only removed in 2000 (and 40% still voted against) and a 2004 amendment to strike down clauses calling for racially segregated schools failed because conservatives feared it would be construed to force the government to recognize a ‘right to education’. As I said, the section restricting the vote from idiots hasn’t been repealed.

    Wallace Jr lost a primary last year badly and hasn’t fared too well recently. Folsom’s son has had more success.

  3. BTW, not strictly relevant but found this map and thought you might enjoy it. In fact it looks a lot like your work:

    In AL you can kind of see the black belt and you can certainly see the lack of hegemony, the north-south divide and Winston County.

  4. Actually, 1860 isn’t the best map. The wealthy planters in the Black Belt in AL and especially MS voted Whig (John Bell was the de-facto Southern Whig candidate) and not Democratic back then. Also, planters who had trade with the North might have voted Bell because they weren’t all over secession.

    Some interesting years to look at county-results in AL are 1868-1872 (blacks could vote), 1904 (north-south division), 1928 (anti-Catholic bigotry), 1936-1948 (lol Winston County). Wikipedia doesn’t have those maps, but this place: http://americanpast.richmond.edu/voting/interactive/ is the second best.

  5. What an extraordinary website.

    This: http://www.ep.tc/problems/nineteen/index.html is George Wallace’s campaign comic strip from 1960. Quite astonishing.

  6. http://www.uselectionatlas.org is good too. Probably not as detailed as ourcampaign but so so much easier to navigate.

  7. I’m a member of the latter site, so I know it very well :)

  8. Probably none of the commenters are coming back to this, but a point of order: the Black Belt may be better electorally defined now, but the name of the region is not because it is full of black people. The “black” refers to the soil, which made it cotton plantation country, which meant there were lots of slaves, which means there are still lots of Blacks. But the region has been so named for a long time, before mass black enfranchisement. Indeed, it has lost a large proportion of its population (even in absolute, not merely proportionate terms), and with it political clout, through the years.

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