George Wallace, JFK and Desegregation

On this day in 1963, after defiantly blocking the door at the University of Alabama in open hostility to the United States government, George Wallace relents and two black students are admitted to the school. Whilst Wallace had been an unrepentant segregationist throughout the process, President Kennedy continued inexorable legal and moral pressure, culminating in the federalizing of Alabama’s own National Guard.

A four-term governor of Alabama and four-time presidential hopeful, Wallace was sworn in as the 45th Governor of Alabama the previous November. Always remembered for his 1960’s racial politics, Wallace angrily declared in his inauguration address “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” and later that year stood in front of the entrance to the University of Alabama in an attempt to block the enrollment of black students.

Wallace was born in Clio, AL, on August 25, 1919. After law school and military service, he embarked on a career as a judge and local politician. In 1958, Wallace made his first bid for Alabama’s gubernatorial seat, and the NAACP endorsed him in the Democratic primary, while the KKK endorsed his opponent; he was defeated by a wide margin.

Four years later, by 1962 Wallace had cynically become a fiery segregationist, and won election to the governor’s office in a landslide victory with 96% of the vote. Purposefully antagonizing the Kennedy Administration, his first gubernatorial speech, written by a KKK leader, ran “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.”

Wallace has the third longest gubernatorial tenure in post-Constitutional US history, at 16 years and four days over the course of four non-consecutive terms. He was also a US presidential candidate for four consecutive elections, in which he sought the Democratic Party nomination in 1964, ’72, and ’76, and was the American Independent Party candidate in the 1968 presidential election.

Notably in the 1972 bid, on May 15 Wallace was gunned down in a Laurel, Maryland supermarket parking lot by Arthur Bremer, a fame-seeking would-be assassin. The following day, Michigan voters gave Wallace an ignominious, and perhaps prescient, victory in their primary. With the help of purposeful GOP cross-over hi-jinks, Wallace garnered the highest tally in state primary history with 809,239 votes.

Wallace, wheelchair-bound until his death in 1998, made efforts to reconcile with spurned civil rights leaders and their ideals in his later years. Meanwhile, Bremer was sentenced to 53 years in prison for the shooting; he served 35 years of the sentence and was released on parole on November 9, 2007.

And here, our sadly familiar story endeth.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.