George Wallace, segregationist par excellence, declares himself as an independent candidate for president on this day in 1968.
Probably last Christmas, at the end of 1967, maybe the upcoming Easter, we visited my grandparents in Lenoir, North Carolina, where my mother had grown up and where I have always felt most at home. At a family dinner, politics arose, a touchy subject then just as it is now. At one point, as presidential candidates, declared and not, were discussed, my grandfather slammed the table with his fist, dishes jumping, silverware clattering.
“No one in my family will vote for George Wallace,” he announced to his stunned descendants.
Not that anyone eligible would have. But we were still shocked–by the outburst, not the cause.
My grandfather was as conservative as they come. As a businessman, he had hated FDR during the thirties and beyond, and he wanted all governments away from his activities. As the grandson of two Confederate veterans of the Civil War, he had emotional reasons for wanting the federal government kept even further away. Yet Wallace was beyond the pale for him. The type of racism the former Alabama governor symbolized was not something he could stomach.
At that point, racism and conservatism were not yet one and the same. Nor were all racists the same. As an insurance agent, my grandfather had succeeded because he treated all people, including blacks and poor whites, the same. He made sure all legitimate claims were paid and treated all of his clients with respect. He knew their names, visited their homes (black or white) and aided them with the same attention he gave his richer clients. He had grown up in nearby Wilkes County, leaving (or so he later told my uncle) because he got tired of staring at the south end of a north-bound mule. Having pulled himself up, he did not want to live with those who had not, but that did not mean he was willing to dismiss them or cheat them.
I had better be a little more clear: Not only did he not want to live around poor whites, but he didn’t want to live with African Americans, not even those who had pulled themselves up. He would respect them, treat them with dignity, but live next door? I suspect he was even in favor of integrated public schools, for school was meant for everyone and anyone who didn’t like that and had enough money could send their children elsewhere. He knew the results of segregation but he also felt he ought to be able to reserve the right to live with “his own.”
His racism, in other words, was complicated. And it had little to do with his politics.
One of the reasons for his outburst against Wallace, I am sure, is that Wallace was combining the two, racism and politics, and my grandfather thought that was a crass and opportunistic relic of the past, that we had had enough problems with race in politics in America since the founding of the country, and that it was time we moved beyond that. Civil-rights legislation had been passed; live with it.
His attitude, thanks to political exploitation over the years since, has dwindled in America, though racism hasn’t.
Once, white people who believed as my grandfather did were common. In fact, I think there were many white southerners who felt the same way even in 1968. This was before the invention of the Republican ‘southern strategy,’ before the American right had realized it could corral a racist base (the ten to fifteen percent who supported Wallace) in such a way that they could manage victory through a minority of the rest of the country–and even, as we are seeing today, through a minority overall.
Wallace himself understood the power of his base (the same base, though now doubled in size through political machinations, that Donald Trump appeals to today). He also understood that it wasn’t large enough for him to win any national election through it. Unlike the strategists of the reforming right (rebuilding after the devastation of the 1964 election), Wallace wasn’t thinking long-term, however. He wanted to have an impact right away. Though he said, according to The New York Times, that he was “not running for the purpose of throwing the election into the House,” that was clearly Wallace’s intention. Again, from the Times:
“If it is thrown into the House, Mr. Wallace said today, “we have all to gain and nothing to lose.” That would be true, he indicated, because, at the least, the dramatic dislocation of the normal electoral process would prove that “people are tired of the interference of the central Government” supported, he said, by both the Republicans and the Democrats.
Furthermore, Mr. Wallace implied and his staff confirmed that they believed such a deadlock might well force important concessions from the Presidential candidate whose electoral vote, combined with Mr. Wallace’s, would equal a majority….
The segregationist former Governor has several times referred approving to such a situation as “a kind of coalition government,” and his statements today indicated that his bargaining, if it occurs this year, would be formidable.
Wallace was willing to subvert the intentions of the American political system but was trying to do it in a way that actually had little chance of success at that time. His movement was watched carefully, however, by political actors more willing to bide their time and to act more carefully. They learned from him–as much about what not to do as how to proceed–and they quickly recognized that his base would not only be up for grabs when he was out of the way but would be as solid as any voting bloc could ever be.
Today, this base has been carefully cultivated into a constituency two or three times as large as it was then, one that can be manipulated to do almost anything those who control the right-wing strategy want.
And it is all built on racism, on cultivating more racism, with Wallace having shown the way.