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George C. Wallace

4-time Governor of Alabama

George C. Wallace

George Corley Wallace was born in Clio, Alabama, on August 25, 1919. In 1936, while a student at Barbour County High School, he won the state Golden Gloves bantamweight championship; he successfully defended his title the following year. He was also a star on the school football team. He entered the University of Alabama Law School in 1937, and received his law degree in 1942. While at the university, Wallace served as president of the freshman class, was captain of both the boxing team and his freshman class baseball team, and was a member of the law school honor court. On May 21, 1943, Wallace married Lurleen Burns. He subsequently enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and flew nine combat missions over Japan before being discharged for medical reasons in 1945.

Early Political Career

Wallace's political career began in 1946, when he was elected to the State Legislature. During his tenure, Wallace sponsored bills that helped Alabama gain more than one hundred new industries; he also drafted legislation that resulted in the GI and Dependents Scholarships Acts, designed to aid the children and widows of war casualties.

In 1953, Wallace was elected to a judgeship in the Third Judicial Court; he held this position until 1959.

Wallace made his first bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1958. His principal opponent during the campaign was John Patterson, who was supported by the Ku Klux Klan. Running an anti-KKK campaign, Wallace gained the endorsement of the NAACP. Wallace ultimately lost the nomination to Patterson. This defeat led Wallace to rethink his political platform, and by 1959 he had become a hard-line segregationist.

First Term as Governor

In 1962, Wallace made his second bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, this time running on a pro-segregation, pro-states' rights platform. He defeated James E. Folsom in the first primary, and chief political rival Ryan DeGraffenreid in the run-off election. In the general election, he polled the largest vote ever given a gubernatorial candidate in Alabama up to that time.

During Wallace's first term as Governor, Alabama was the scene of some of the most racially charged violence in the country, including the use of fire hoses and police dogs to stop a peaceful demonstration in Birmingham. In 1963, Wallace literally stood at the entrance to the University of Alabama in an attempt to prevent two black students from attending classes. Although the incident was actually fairly brief and the students did get to attend classes, Wallace's "stand in the schoolhouse door" made headlines across the nation and helped make Alabama a centerpiece of the civil rights movement.

Taking his political beliefs northward in 1964, Wallace entered presidential primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and Indiana. Despite being an openly segregationist Southerner, Wallace did quite well, receiving up to 43 per cent of the vote in some districts.

In September 1965, Wallace called the Alabama Legislature into session and ordered them to draw up an amendment allowing an incumbent Governor to run for a second term. The attempt was ultimately curtailed by his previous rival, Ryan DeGraffenried. As the only other Alabama Democrat with political clout at the time, DeGraffenried was the natural choice to succeed Wallace, but he was killed in a plane crash while campaigning in northern Alabama, in early 1967. After DeGraffenried's death, Wallace convinced his wife Lurleen to run for Governor, despite her having just gone through treatment for cancer. Lurleen Wallace ultimately won the governorship, but died in office on May 6, 1968; she was succeeded by Lieutenant-Governor Albert Brewer.

First True Bid for the Presidency

In June 1968, Wallace announced his candidacy for President, as the nominee of the anti-liberal American Independent Party. During his campaign Wallace shifted the focus of his platform from race to Communism. In October, he announced that his running mate would be General Curtis LeMay. The ticket carried five Southern states, and garnered almost enough electoral votes to throw the election to the House of Representatives.

Second and Third Terms as Governor

In 1970, Wallace was outpolled by incumbent Albert Brewer, but then outpolled Brewer in the run-off. He subsequently won the general election, and was inaugurated for the second time in January 1971. On January 4, 1971, he married Cornelia Snively.

Second Bid for the Presidency

In 1972, Wallace announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. After winning every county in Florida, he took his campaign north. In May, while campaigning in Maryland, he was shot by Arthur Bremer and left paralyzed in both legs. Although he did get victories in Maryland, Michigan, Tennessee and North Carolina, he ultimately lost the nomination to George McGovern.

Although the assassination attempt seriously compromised Wallace's health, he garnered nomination to a third term as Governor in 1974, thanks to a 1968 amendment to the State Constitution allowing a Governor to succeed himself once.

Wallace's second and third terms as Governor were far more peaceful than his first term had been, and great strides were made in reforming the state's national image. Wallace himself sponsored the largest highway expansion in state history, and secured federal revenue sharing funds to establish the Death Trap Elimination Program. During these years over 1,000 new or expanded businesses and some 43,000 new jobs were brought into the state. Wallace also oversaw a doubling of expenditures for improved health care throughout the state; establishment of the Alabama Office of Consumer Protection; and increases in farm income, old age pensions, unemployment compensation, and workmen's compensation.

Third Bid for the Presidency

Wallace's last bid for the Democratic presidential nomination began in 1975. His campaign never really gained support, however, and he finally dropped out after a series of poor pollings in June 1976; he subsequently endorsed Jimmy Carter.

Interim "Career"

Wallace's third term as Governor ended in 1979. In late 1978, he and Cornelia were divorced after a very nasty and public separation. In 1979, Wallace asked for, and received, forgiveness for his past racial actions from civil rights leader John Lewis. In 1981, he married country singer Lisa Taylor, who was 30 years his junior.

Fourth Term as Governor

In 1982, Wallace was enthusiastically elected to an unprecedented fourth term as Governor of Alabama. Despite his earlier record of supressing civil rights, he had sufficiently reformed his public image to receive a substantial amount of support from black voters during the general election. During this term, Wallace pushed a constitutional amendment that created an oil and gas trust fund to help finance all non-education segments of the state government; sponsored a bill rewriting the state's job-injury laws; and worked with the legislature to prepare a $310 million education bond issue. He failed, however, to get the legislature to raise property and income taxes to increase funding for education.

Wallace was in tears when, in 1986, he announced his retirement from politics. Divorced from Lisa in 1987, he spent the rest of his life in increasingly frail health. Governor George C. Wallace died in Montgomery on September 13, 1998.


Alabama Department of Archives & History

See Also

James F. Folsom
American Independent Party
1972 Presidential Election
Jimmy Carter

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The Robinson Library >> Alabama

This page was last updated on January 08, 2019.