Selma, George Wallace, and the Real Legacy of White Resistance

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I get by with a little help from my friends

George Wallace, Jr. wants you to believe that his father was unfairly represented in the Hollywood film Selma. The movie – produced by Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt, and directed by the outspoken Ava DuVernay – has generated significant controversy since its December 2014 release. Former White House staffer Joseph Califano and others have taken issue with the film’s not-as-flattering-as-they-would-like portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson (and have even absurdly suggested that staging protests in Selma was LBJ’s idea). And Spike Lee and many others cried foul over the snub of both DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo at last year’s Academy Awards.

Oyelowo masterfully embodies the film’s central character, Martin Luther King, whom the filmmakers smartly present “warts and all.” But it is Selma’s depiction of the former segregationist governor Wallace that has folks closer to Alabama up in arms, including the younger Wallace, who was angry enough to pen an op-ed on Al.com, slamming the film and its creators.

The historical-fictional character of George Wallace in Selma is played brilliantly by actor Tim Roth. When the President attempts to give Wallace the “Johnson Treatment” in the Oval Office, the scene unfolds in Selma precisely as one might have imagined when reading biographies of either Johnson or the governor. In trying to convince Wallace to step outside and make a bold statement in support of black voting rights, Johnson appeals to him to consider his legacy – when people reflected upon George Wallace in 1985, what would they think? Without much, if any, self-reflection, Wallace simply shrugs and snarls – he didn’t care what they thought. Roth nails it.

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Wallace, Jr. argues that the film makes too much of his father’s segregationist credentials, insisting that his ‘redemption’ in later life should color his legacy. And he maintains that the governor had nothing to do with the attack of peaceful marchers by state troopers and sheriff’s deputies which serves as the film’s climax. While much of what Wallace Jr. argues is, to borrow his own phrase, “pure, unadulterated fiction,” the more disturbing truth about his recent op-ed is that part of it is absolutely accurate, albeit for reasons that Wallace, and probably most other whites in Alabama, are unwilling to acknowledge or admit.

The producers of Selma – one of the most historically accurate Hollywood films in recent memory – did not “needlessly change history,” though, as Wallace Jr. suggests. If anything they did George Wallace’s legacy a favor by portraying the governor as a reactionary segregationist encouraging violence. The real Wallace was much more effective in shoring up white privilege than such a portrait suggests.

Let’s begin, though, with the elements of the younger Wallace’s argument which cannot be sustained by any rational historical analysis backed by documentary evidence (some of which have already been properly eviscerated by former Democratic congressman Artur Davis).Selma’s Wallace is what most Americans remember or otherwise know – an unabashed segregationist and hate-spewing demagogue. Wallace Jr. argues that his father’s “conscience eventually led him to believe that the South’s commonly held views on segregation were wrong, and he publicly renounced them.” Wallace did indeed, eventually, renounce his “segregation forever” stance – quite desperately, in fact. The notion that it was solely his conscience that led him to do so would be astonishingly preposterous were it not such a widespread belief among whites in Alabama, and probably some blacks too.

Wallace began his career as a New Deal liberal in the style of Governor “Big Jim” Folsom. When, in his own words, Wallace was “out-niggered” in his initial run for governor, by the more perceptive politician John Patterson in 1958, he vowed to never allow that to happen again. Wallace had few, if any, political values beyond his own ambition, and becoming an arch-segregationist was a means to an end, just as his renunciation of that stance 20 years later was. Once the non-violent civil rights movement had toppled the most egregious forms of segregation – particularly widespread disenfranchisement of blacks – Wallace realized he had to change course or get swept away. He courted blacks because blacks had finally become voters.

Wallace Jr. also tries to imagine his father as something more than an opportunistic politician exploiting racial fears and hatred – the Wallace of Selma. He tells us that the elder Wallace was “defiant, charismatic, and energetic in his battle against what he saw as a threat from the central government to seek and control every aspect of our lives . . . .” He was certainly defiant. And he made many rhetorical claims to “states’ rights,” and many denunciations of over-arching federal authority.   But it is telling that these, and most other, claims to “states’ rights” were directly traceable to Confederate President Jefferson’s Davis’ postbellum rationalization of the Confederate “Lost Cause” – the persistent myth, that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, crafted in order to restore southern whites to the moral high ground and to lament the loss of a fictionally idyllic society destroyed by nefarious Yankees. And it is even more telling that Wallace rarely, if ever, used this language except when defending segregation.

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Take Wallace’s first inaugural speech in 1963 as but one example. Wallace Jr. claims that he has no recollection of his father ever “making mention of a ‘mongrel’ race that would result if segregation were ended,” as he does in Selma. The threat of “miscegenation” (sex between black men and white women), the “mongrelization” of the white race, and the resultant destruction of Western civilization were the foundational fears in the hearts of many southern white men in the 1950s and 60s. Wallace and his speech writers knew this and exploited it in carefully worded fashion. In the 1963 inaugural speech, the governor spoke about Alabamian’s “freedom-loving blood” and called upon the entirely white audience to “send an answer to the [federal] tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South.” It was their duty to “sound the drum” and go to battle to prevent the destruction of segregation. He emboldened them, as would be his custom, to “give the word of a race of honor that we will tolerate their boot in our face no longer.” It was a call to arms which played upon their fears of racial degradation and, indeed, enslavement.

In the same speech, Wallace warned blacks, white liberals, and anyone else “who would follow the false doctrine of communistic amalgamation” of the races, that the white people of Alabama would never “surrender [their] system of government, [or their] freedom of race and religion.” The South had once been attacked by “the vulturous carpetbagger and federal troops,” so that the “infamous, illegal 14th Amendment [granting the basic rights of citizenship to freed slaves] might be passed.” But southern whites had fought in the late 1800s to reverse the gains blacks had made, and Wallace added, “They won.” The result was Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement. Wallace concluded, “Let us assume leadership of the fight.” As the eminent historian Dan T. Carter has forcefully suggested, and as Al.com’s own Charles Dean has recently noted, Wallace’s public rhetoric, and his actions behind-the-scenes, directly encouraged violent segregationists to take deadly action, the kind which ended the life of Jimmie Lee Jackson – the martyr for whom the Selma-to-Montgomery march was conceived.

Wallace never directly encouraged violence, at least not in public. The man who wrote the 1963 inaugural speech – and many others for Wallace – was a well-known one-time leader in the Ku Klux Klan. Asa “Ace” Carter was, himself, directly responsible for numerous violent attacks on blacks, including the entertainer Nat King Cole, in the late 1950s. More tellingly though, by the time of Wallace’s rise, Carter had become a member of the White Citizens’ Council, a higher class white supremacist group which was much more effective than the violently self-defeating Klan.

The Citizens’ Council in Mississippi and Alabama had publically eschewed violence and pioneered the strategy of economic reprisal against black activists, specifically in order to prevent the integration of the South’s public schools after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the subsequent filing of suits by local blacks, the NAACP, and the Justice Department in the 1960s. Wallace publically and privately backed the White Citizens’ Council throughout his career. And once it became clear that, despite his best efforts, he could not actually prevent school desegregation, he adopted the language of “law and order” which the Council had been long proffering.

This is where George Wallace, Jr. inadvertently gets it right, and where Selma did Wallace a favor. For the most part, Wallace spoke against violence, and in some cases he tried to prevent it. Does this make him heroic? Progressive? Brave? A “redeemer” leading the nation “along the path to reconciliation,” as his son has suggested? No. George Wallace was nothing at all if not an opportunistic demagogue. He spoke against violence because it had become clear that violent resistance was killing white supremacy and eroding his credibility as the champion of “segregation forever.”

The negative publicity in the wake of violent resistance had become too damaging, as the aftermath of the tragic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing and the actions of Birmingham police commissioner Bull Conner had proven in 1963, prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Citizens’ Council had already demonstrated that measured and thoughtful, ostensibly legal, means could more effectively buttress white racial superiority. They had managed to keep schools almost entirely white for a decade after Brown, after all. Wallace began to learn.

There were fits and starts in his transformation. Wallace probably did not give a direct order to attack marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, as the film suggests. But as governor, he bears direct responsibility for the attack, nonetheless. Carter, in his definitive biography,The Politics of Rage, cannot conclusively say – as the head of the state troopers, Colonel Al Lingo, always maintained – that Wallace gave a direct order to use force. Lingo testified in federal court, regarding his instructions from Wallace, “There was to be no march. I interpreted this to mean that I was to restrain the marchers.” When federal judge Frank Johnson pressed him, Lingo acknowledged that this meant he was to do, “Whatever it took.” Carter also quotes Wallace in a meeting with aids the day before the march as saying, “I’m not going to have a bunch of niggers walking along a highway in this state as long as I’m governor.”

In the final analysis of what happened at Selma in 1965, Carter writes, “Whether or not George Wallace specifically approved the tactics of the state troopers, he never issued a single word of public criticism. A quarter-century later – while expressing regret for the injuries suffered by the marchers – he insisted that troopers had ‘saved their lives’ by stopping the march.’”

Footage of the attack at the bridge aired on primetime network television (something the filmmakers suggest occurred live – one of a few very minor details which Selma did get ‘wrong’). The resulting national backlash further tarnished the image of the state of Alabama – which was overtaking neighboring Mississippi as the segregationist heart of darkness – and it ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These developments further convinced Wallace and others that the way to salvage white supremacy was to commit to “law and order.”

Law-and-order was a phrase which was as malleable as white resistance itself. By the late 1960s it had become a way to reluctantly acquiesce to the most minimal demands of federal law, while simultaneously lamenting the consequences and working to stem the tide of integration as quickly, and legally, as possible. Among its fundamental characteristics was a lack of moral or intellectual acceptance of black equality. Wallace’s protégé, and his regent-wife’s successor as governor, Albert Brewer, championed the strategy. He routinely bemoaned any court order which forced recalcitrant white school boards to move beyond token desegregation and offered gubernatorial support to continuing resistance.

In 1969 Brewer articulated the crux of law-and-order’s development as a foil for integration and black equality when he announced, “Maybe it’s time Alabama went into court and asked for equal protection of the laws.” This was not the old call for states’ rights. Brewer tellingly used the language of the Fourteenth Amendment, not the Tenth. He meant that whites had individual rights – to avoid having to send their children to school with black children, specifically. George Wallace understood that, and so did his audience.

When Wallace returned to the governor’s office in 1971, he orchestrated a series of political charades designed to reinforce his defiant posture among whites, while appearing to blunt further desegregation of schools. The press sardonically dubbed it the “stand in the schoolbus door.” Wallace knew that whites longed to preserve the tokenism produced by the “freedom-of-choice” method of desegregation, under which black students could apply to attend white schools. He and others had begun to characterize and condemn anything which moved beyond such tokenism as “bussing,” despite that fact that, outside of cities like Mobile, the actual bussing of students to develop fully integrated school systems was rare.

Wallace’s defiance continued to encourage white resistance, especially in the form of massive white flight to private segregation academies and exclusive, independent suburban school systems. By the middle of the decade, massive white flight from majority black districts – along with a series of somewhat unrelated legal developments – was threatening to put white landowners in an intolerable situation. Alabama’s whites had been forced to desegregate their schools, to reapportion the state legislature, and to create a uniform system of property tax assessment, all at roughly the same time. Throughout the state – but particularly in the rural Black Belt – wealthy white landowners could foresee black elected officials raising property taxes to the highest possible rate to fund public education, which was quickly becoming all-black. White money for black students.

Wallace championed an appropriately law-and-order solution to this problem and in the process helped develop a seemingly colorblind defense of white privilege – this is the Wallace you do not see in Selma. By 1978, the governor had successfully shepherded a new property tax classification and assessment system and a so-called “Lid Bill” through the legislature. Via a constitutional amendment, lawmakers lowered the maximum assessment rate for residential, agricultural, and timber land to 10 percent and made that low ratio applicable to “current use” of the land, rather than fair market value.

According to the state department of revenue, this meant that the valuation of the land was to be “based on the actual use of the property, rather than what the use might be if the property were sold or developed.” Effectively, this meant – and still means to this day – that timber and agricultural land would end up being assessed at a rate substantially lower than the already absurdly low 10 percent. In today’s Alabama Black Belt, where whites own vast swaths of such land, much of it simply reserved for hunting, and where school systems are almost entirely black, this has had, in the recent words of one federal judge, “crippled” the educational system.

Such schemes are the real legacy of George Wallace. His repentance for vowing to uphold “segregation forever” is probably irrelevant. If it is relevant, it is so only because it demonstrates that Wallace would sacrifice anything to political ambitions. Unfortunately for Alabama, he and so many others, before and after him, never used their immense popularity and influence to suggest that segregation was morally abhorrent and that white supremacy was inherently wrong. At least not when it mattered – say, in 1965, in Selma.

Joseph Bagley is a Visiting Lecturer at Georgia State University.  A native of Alabama, he is a political and legal historian of the United States, with a particular interest in civil rights and social justice movements. 

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