Worker Deaths: Business as Usual

Last November, four workers died from poison-gas inhalation at a pesticide plant in La Porte, Texas. (I was unable to find a report that named the four workers, but it is known that two of the victims were brothers Gilbert and Robert Tisnado.) The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently released a report concluding that the four workers “would be alive today had their employer, DuPont, taken steps to protect them.”

DuPont is a corporation with a capitalization value of $63.6 billion. OSHA fined the company just $99,000 for its fatal safety violations.

That story reminded me of a report by Howard Berkes on National Public Radio about workers who suffocated in grain silos. The cause of those deaths is a practice called “walking down the grain.” When grain stored in silos sticks to the sides or fails to settle evenly, bosses send workers into the silo with instructions to push the grain down, either by using shovels or by walking on it. Air pockets often form in the grain, so there is great danger of a quicksand effect.

Bill Field, a professor of agriculture at Purdue University, has calculated the death toll. According to NPR,

Field counts more than 660 farmers and workers who suffocated in nearly 1,000 grain entrapments since 1964 at both commercial facilities and on farms. Nearly 500 died in grain bins. One in four victims was younger than 18. 

The NPR report shows in horrific detail how those workers die. In 2010, three workers (Will Piper, Alex Pacas, and Wyatt Whitebread) walked down corn at a grain-storage site owned by Haasbach, LLC in Mount Carroll, Illinois. At 20, Piper was the oldest. Whitebread was only 14. The corn shifted under their feet and they were pulled downward. Whitebread was covered completely and died. Piper and Pacas struggled on for hours, as other employees and rescue personnel tried to extract them.

Pacas finally succumbed. Piper barely survived, after being “trapped for a couple more hours, as he remembers it, almost face to face with his dead friend [Pacas].” Berkes and NPR also noted that, due to the extreme force exerted by the mountain of corn, Pacas’s body was “pockmarked like a golf ball.”

The employer showed no regard for the workers’ safety, even to the point of informing them of dangers. “I had no idea that someone could get trapped and die in the corn,” Piper noted. OSHA fined the company $550,000 for safety violations, but later reduced the fine by more than half.

Will we ever see the day when workers’ lives stop being cheap commodities? Why is that when workers are killed on the job by employers with no regard for life, it isn’t regarded as a crime? Why don’t the deaths of workers qualify as important news at most media outlets?

Working-Class People in Higher Education: My Story, Part 3

After I graduated from the University of Virginia in 1991, I changed my career plans from law to academia. I was clearly better suited to the latter, and circumstances seemed favorable. There were many reports of a glut of lawyers on the labor market. Also, the early ’90s were a rare time when people expected a boom in academic hiring. Experts on the academic world predicted the boom based on two demographic facts: (a) many older professors would soon be retiring and (b) the Baby Boomers’ children would soon be going to college.

In the end, of course, the new golden age failed to arrive. When old profs retired, colleges cancelled some positions and hired many adjunct professors. For myself, I tried to overcome obstacles through hard work, but found a remarkable amount of corruption. I did meet professors who were honest, open-minded, and fair, but they were in the minority.

I obtained an MA in history at Virginia, specializing in modern European, and particularly British, political history. I wanted to continue to the PhD, and I applied to programs at other, higher rated institutions. Virginia was deficient in both funding and placement, and I wanted to give myself the best chance possible.

Over the next couple years, I wound up teaching community college to pay the bills and obtain experience. I applied to different PhD programs in history. I applied to institutions that had leading experts in my specialty fields, as well as overall prestige. On that basis, my first choice was Columbia University.

There was another reason that Columbia appealed to me. I wanted to get into non-academic writing as well. In fact, I had considered journalism school. But every J-school person I spoke to said that it was important to have experience, at least with student newspapers, before you applied. I had wanted to write for one of the two student papers at Virginia, but, for reasons I discussed in Part 2, I didn’t have time for any extracurricular activities.

Had I enrolled at Columbia, I would have had a home base in New York City. I planned to pursue summer internships at prominent newspapers and magazines. I figured that with clips, contacts, and an Ivy League doctorate, I would be able to publish writing on politics and particularly issues related to my academic expertise.

My grades and recommendations were excellent, and I achieved high scores on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). I ranked among the top 1% on the verbal test and on the history subject test. I believe my writing samples and personal statement were very strong. In the latter, I tried to show how adversity had made me relentless in my studies and enthusiastic about scholarship.

I was admitted to Columbia, but denied funding. I contacted the professors and tried to change their minds. They did not relent, but encouraged me to apply again later. After compiling some community-college teaching experience, I re-applied. I was admitted without funding again. So there is exactly one reason why I don’t have an Ivy League degree or experience at leading New York-based publications: I was not born rich.

I tried other graduate programs as well. Cornell rejected me outright. I inquired about the program at Brown, but the professor who would have been my advisor told me not to bother applying.

When I looked at the undergraduate institutions of the students who did enroll at Columbia, Cornell, and Brown, I noticed that a grossly disproportionate number had bachelor’s degrees from the Ivy League. No one has compiled detailed statistics on the social backgrounds of grad students at the Ivy League, but it has been clear for some time that those institutions are socially exclusive at the undergraduate level.

I wonder how many sons or daughters of manual laborers enrolled at Columbia’s Department of History during the 1990s, that alleged era of new-found diversity consciousness. Did it happen even once? I wonder about Brown and Cornell, too. What I can say is that of all the graduate students and professors whose backgrounds I came to know, none were working class. They were mostly upper-middle class, and that was especially true of Ivy Leaguers.

I was admitted with funding to the history PhD program at Washington University in St. Louis and enrolled in 1996. I suppose that Wash. U.’s defenders would say that the university deserves credit for admitting and funding someone from my background. But the truth is that the administration funds graduate students in history mainly to provide cheap grading and teaching assistance for the bourgeois Ivy Leaguers and Oxbridge grads on the faculty. History grad students at Wash. U. don’t really have the chance to rise to the same professional level as their professors, and the administrators know that.

Of course, I should never have gone to Wash. U. In my defense, the program’s placement efforts were more successful at the time. The academic job market got worse thereafter. Also, I knew that I never wanted to go into business. I had seen what standard business practice meant for workers like myself, my friends, and family members. I wanted to work to change that system, not join it.

As I entered the dissertation phase of the program at Wash. U., I decided that I needed to try to reach a wide, non-academic audience with writing on social class in America. No other writers dealt with that issue properly. I submitted a lot of articles and looked for better career alternatives than college teaching.

The Wash. U. history PhDs who got jobs tended to get them after years on the academic market. Even then, some became adjuncts or high-school teachers. Many of those who had to wait had someone to support them in the meantime. I didn’t. Also, those who landed tenure-track jobs generally wound up with bad jobs. They had low pay and heavy course loads that made writing of any kind difficult. Finally, I got hired as an archive assistant at Wash. U. Hey, it seemed like the best option at the time.

Over the years, I have sent countless submissions and pitches to publications around the English-speaking world. I’ve applied for many entry-level magazine/newspaper jobs, and tried to land research positions in the union movement and at progressive think tanks. Those applications were unsuccessful. I published a lot of articles in alternative publications, but never made any real money. If you look at the people who hold the paying positions in academia and the writing business, you will see a proliferation of Ivy Leaguers (and disproportionately preppies). Likewise, many paid writers previously held unpaid internships in NYC. I was locked out of that world due to my social class.

I don’t deny that I made mistakes, but my mistakes should not have been so costly. Had I been from the right social class, they would not have been considered mistakes at all. That is the issue.

I never wanted another working-class person to face the elitist barriers that stood in my way. But it happens all the time, and no major media outlet will take the matter seriously. Working-class people should not be so grossly under-represented in leading undergraduate and graduate programs. When we overcome obstacles and achieve at a high level, we should not be excluded because we “only” attended public institutions.

Access to a leading university should never be a matter of ability to pay—at either the undergraduate or graduate level. Nor should anyone have to take out loans to pay for higher education. It is now almost impossible to make a decent living in safe working conditions without a college degree. Making a profit off someone who needs access to college is the moral equivalent of charging a fee to exit a burning building.

Likewise, hiring and promotion decisions about people in their 30s and older should not be based on which colleges admitted them when they were teenagers, or which graduate schools admitted them when they were in their 20s. Success in landing paid writing gigs should not depend on attending an elite college or prep school, nor on working free internships in New York City while your parents pay your bills. Those means of determining fitness for top jobs were devised to keep those posts in the hands of a rich, well-connected elite. It is class bias hiding behind the terms “academic excellence” and “professional development.”

That problem is endemic to society, particularly in the class-ridden U.S.A. But the realms of academe and writing are ruled by class bigotry at its most fanatical.

If you’re a working-class person with stories to share about your experiences in higher education, please e-mail them to me at

Working-Class People in Higher Education: My Story, Part 2

I arrived at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1989, feeling backward but determined to catch up quickly. I imagine that Thomas Jefferson’s neoclassical architecture deeply affects everyone who attends that institution. (At first, I did not reflect on the role of slave labor in building the university; that came later.)

In my case, Jefferson’s “academical village” seemed the exact opposite of the impoverished, ramshackle life I had lived during the previous two years—and of the impoverished, ramshackle person I believed that I was. I wanted to transform myself, but there were limits.

I was still a fundamentalist Christian. Hardship often reinforces religious belief, especially when fear is deeply inculcated in the target (that seems the right word) at a young age. When circumstances seem hopeless, the thought of a lifeline from heaven can be appealing. And what if things are bad because you won’t stop sinning? My life had just started to work out. I figured I’d better not make God angry.

When I arrived at Virginia, I maintained the practice of praying on my knees before bed. I prayed for family, friends, and the members of the admissions committee that had seen fit to let me go to UVa. I prayed that I’d be good enough, and promised not to commit the sin of pride if the Lord helped me.

I was still a racist, too, but the hold of that poisonous system was weakening before I got to Charlottesville. My parents had painted a happy picture of segregation, but old newsreel footage shown on TV was sufficient to show that they were lying. My racism weakened gradually, becoming more subtle than my parents’ version. I still believed in the stereotypes of the black criminal and welfare cheat, for instance. And, if you knew me then, it would have been best if you didn’t get me started on immigration.

I double-majored in government and history. I had no time for extracurricular activities, because I took more than the standard course load per semester: 18-21 credit hours, rather than 15. I did that because I feared that my parents’ tenuous hold on solvency would slip, and that I would have to return to Tennessee and work to bail them out again. I wanted to get as close as possible to graduation while the home front was stable. Then, if I had to take a hardship leave from Virginia, I could return later and finish the degree quickly—maybe even in a summer. As it happened, my parents somehow managed to hold things together and I finished my degree on schedule, with lots of credit hours to spare.

Virginia was, and is, a class-ridden university. It was difficult being the only one who didn’t have a car, or whose clothes were threadbare. That was especially true around the stereotypical UVa. student, who was upper-middle class, possibly a preppie, maybe even southern gentry.

But I found no class barriers or pitfalls in my studies. I worked extremely hard, often reading and going over notes at the libraries until they closed, even on Fridays. I made A grades in most classes during my first set of mid-terms. That convinced me that I had arrived at exactly the right place.

The education was excellent. I developed a keen interest in modern European history, but I also learned a great deal about classical history, philosophy, and culture. Likewise, I was fascinated by the workings of law and government in the U.S. and Britain.

As my knowledge base expanded and my critical skills improved, I start hacking away at fundamentalism and racism. I learned that Christian scriptures fit poorly with science and history, that classical philosophy was better than Christian homilies. I learned how racism always leads to atrocities and how it is used to divide the poor. Those changes took longer than they should have. I kept looking for salvageable prejudices, compromises with reality. But, in the end, they all collapsed. It was freedom.

Since then, I have wanted to ensure that many people from my background would have similar experiences through higher education. Since then, I have been frustrated.

Recalling those experiences now, I remember that when “friends” teased me about my background, I would sometimes respond by trotting out old racist and fundamentalist views as a sort of put-on. As I saw it, I was giving them what they expected, and the joke was on them. Actually, the joke was on me. I should have just found better friends. I’m sorry to say that bad habit persisted for some years after graduation.

Speaking of graduation, I finished my BA studies on a high note. My grade-point-average was 3.88 on a 4-point scale, and 3.96 in major subjects. I wrote a thesis on 20th century British politics in the Department of Government and Foreign Affairs. It won the thesis prize, and the combination of thesis and grades allowed me to graduate with highest distinction. The director of the thesis program told me that no government major had previously received that honor in the several years he had been in charge.

So you can see why I decided to go into academia. I loved learning and felt that I had a mission to share my knowledge. I admired my professors and was grateful to them. I was nobody in the social world of UVa., but that fact had not hindered me even slightly in the academic sphere. I was sure that no field was more open to merit.

Working-Class People in Higher Education: My Story, Part 1

A few weeks ago, I encouraged working-class college applicants to share their experiences and challenge discriminatory practices. I guess I should start things off by describing my own background and education.

In my family, college wasn’t considered an option. My parents were manual laborers, like their parents and grandparents. Of all those ancestors, only one, my mother, finished high school. Only one of my grandparents finished elementary school.

There were two children in the home, me and a younger brother. During the 1970s, my family’s economic circumstances were at their peak. My parents had moved to California from Maryland in the ’60s and they both had union jobs.

We lived in a one-story house in Orange County. Wages were high enough and housing prices low enough that a couple with a typical working-class income could afford a nice, modest house, at least in inland areas. It’s not like that anymore.

For us, it was barely like that then. My parents were always wasteful with money. My father believed that prosperity was measured in cars. If you had multiple expensive cars, especially vintage Chevrolet sports cars, you were king. Debt, high mortgage payments, shabby clothes on your kids—those didn’t matter. Just make sure the kids do a good job washing and waxing the vehicles.

The public schools were good, especially before the effects of Proposition 13 kicked in. I was intellectually curious, but not a good student. My parents never told me the importance of education. They expected that I would attend school as long as it was free and legally required, then get a job. And when I looked at my parents, I saw that they had relatively good pay despite being largely uneducated. I had no idea that the egalitarian economy of mid-20th-century America was on its way out.

For my part, I didn’t like school. I was a scared kid. My parents abused me physically and I responded to bullying and other problems by withdrawing. Religious fundamentalism provided the motivation for many of the beatings and crazed parental outbursts. My mother belonged to an extreme evangelical sect called Free Holiness, and she saw any childlike unruliness as a plot engineered by the devil.

At the time, I internalized her fear of hellfire, and of the apocalypse she thought imminent. I also absorbed the racism that both parents taught me. My mother had grown up in segregated schools in Tennessee, pre-Brown, and had never really taken to integration. Both parents said that “Mexicans and Orientals” were taking over our country, and I figured they must be right. Looking back, I regret being so easily cowed by bullies (starting with my parents) and failing to reach for the learning, friendship, and enjoyment that were available at school.

Late in high school, I actually started enjoying classes, especially history and civics. I wanted to go to college and learn more, but had no concept what that entailed. After graduation, I took some community-college classes and did a lot better than I had in high school. I wanted to continue.

That was when my parents decided to move us to my mother’s native Appalachia. We were reverse Joads, fleeing relative prosperity in California. My mother terribly missed her (mostly evil) relatives and was sure that the Almighty was going to smite California because of all the sodomites, Hollywood sinners, and Catholic immigrants from Mexico.

So we moved to Tennessee, where the economy was dire and low-wage. My parents gave no thought to what they would do for work, what would become of their sons, anything really, all because Jesus would provide. We met many great people, but they all struggled economically. Welcome to the underclass.

We got by on the money my parents made by selling the house in California, plus some savings and the proceeds of labor provided by yours truly. For a while, I was the only one working. I had multiple part-time jobs and some of them were off the grid. My old man knew someone who paid cash for chopping firewood, clearing land, moving rock. I gave the money to my con-man father, who told me not to tell the others.

He insisted that we were beset by nothing worse than short-term liquidity problems. He had “pension stock” that he couldn’t sell at the moment, or other pools of wealth that he had to wait to access. Also, he was going to make a fortune off old Chevy cars that he always bought but never seemed to sell. When I saw The King of Marvin Gardens years later, I saw a lot of my father in the character of Jason Staebler, played by Bruce Dern. But when I was young, I accepted my dad’s lies and delusions for longer than I should have. Writing about my parents now, I am again amazed that I did not irrevocably sever ties with them until just a few years ago.

I alternated work with classes at UNC-Asheville. I had originally planned to live on campus, before I knew about our “liquidity problems.” I arranged my schedule to be entirely made up of Tuesday-Thursday classes, so I could commute from home and work as needed on other days. I was an A/B student. I could have done better, but I was frequently tired from work. Also, I increasingly worried that I would never get to graduate. The money would run out and I’d need to work all the time.

I had learned enough about college to realize the importance of going to a highly rated institution, if possible. I decided to take a last shot at that dream with a round of applications in the fall of 1988. The following March, I got admitted to the University of Virginia and was granted a mix of scholarships and loans. My parents finally got jobs—awful ones, but they got them. I would be able to enroll.

When I was in California, I had been too crippled by my bizarre home life—and my own wrongheaded responses to problems—to take advantage of educational opportunities. Going to Charlottesville on Greyhound, I was determined to make up for that.

Remembering and Learning

George Clausen, Youth Mourning, 1916
George Clausen, Youth Mourning, 1916.

On this Memorial Day, we should remember not only American dead, but foreign victims of unjust wars started by our elite. Most American wars lacked the moral rigor of World War II and the U.S. side of the Civil War. The Iraq War is a recent example of our nation’s penchant for aggression.

That conflict also exposed the rigidities of America’s class system. It’s one of the reasons I have written so much about educational inequality. Years ago, I read several editions of the Youth Attitude Tracking Study, an annual Pentagon report with poll data aimed at figuring out why Americans enlist or don’t enlist in the military. In the reports I read, from the late 1990s, the top reason respondents gave in favor of military enlistment was money for college.

According to a 2014 article titled “Enroll or Enlist” by economist Andrew Barr of the University of Virginia (PDF available here), the motives of those who join the military haven’t changed much. Barr noted that money for college “consistently rank[s] among the top two reasons provided when individuals explain their motivations for joining the military.” (The other reason is job-training.)

He also offers quotes from parents of military personnel.

I’m sorry . . . I can’t afford [college for my children] . . . So I’m going to have at least two children gone to the Army.

 I would have liked [my son] to go straight to college . . . He wants to have some sort of medical career . . . [But] we’re not even a middle-class family . . . Money is an issue . . . the biggest idea of going in the Navy . . . was college money.

The words “gone to the Army” in the former quote say a great deal about Americans’ relationship to their military. These words in the second quote, “not even a middle class family,” say still more.

I have often thought about all those who joined the armed forces to pay for college, particularly in the years immediately before the Second Gulf War, and what happened to them. How many were still on active duty when George W. Bush started his armed corporate takeover of Iraq? How many had left active service and started their long-awaited college careers, only to be called up from the reserves. How many were stop-lossed? How many died? How many of those who survived were wounded or suffered mental illness triggered by their experiences? How many actually managed to obtain the bachelor’s degrees they enlisted to fund?

Many Americans are locked out of college because of astronomically rising costs. This article in US News & World Report shows that college tuition rose 79.5% between 2003 and 2013. That was nearly triple the rate of inflation and nearly double the rise in health-care costs.

Why do colleges raise tuition so sharply? Because they can. Education scholars have shown that tuition increases cannot be explained by rising costs on the goods and services colleges spend money on. That is especially true for spending on faculty, given the enormous number of low-paid adjuncts now on campuses.

And, to return to a theme, the colleges with the most resources—elite private institutions—are by far the least likely to admit students who need money for college. We subsidize that discrimination by granting tax exemptions to those colleges and their donors. The cost is high. In the 2007 book Affirmative Action for the Rich, Peter Sacks wrote that “the government’s revenue loss from the charitable deduction to educational institutions, at $5.9 billion in fiscal [year] 2007, was the single largest ‘tax expenditure’ for education in the federal budget.” That money would pay for a lot of scholarships for students with financial need.

The costs of our socially segregated society are not merely financial. Members of the elite get away with their lust for war because they can fill the ranks of the military without having to draft their own sons and daughters. Low wages and lack of access to health care and, yes, education create a de facto draft of the working class.

I well remember the protests against the Iraq War. (I went to my share.) I also remember the large role played by the faculty and students of leading universities. I wonder if they ever reflected on the role their institutions play in maintaining a reserve army of desperate people who fight the elite’s imperial wars just to get a chance at college.

Class Notes: A Story of Bias in 2003 and Today

I told you I’ve been covering class bias in higher education for a long time. I was going through some old files when I found this unpublished piece on from 2003. I had written the original version in 1999 and kept trying to place it, updating it as new events and research warranted.

I used different elements from this piece in shorter articles for the Progressive Populist in 2004 and Razorcake in 2009. Stylistically, I prefer those later pieces, but the 2003 version includes details I still haven’t seen anywhere else. In this article, I argued that class-based affirmative action should be added to other forms of affirmative action. Everyone else at the time argued that we could either keep race as a criterion or replace it with class. (Gender-based affirmative action typically did not appear in those debates. Most colleges asserted that they did not practice gender preferences at the undergraduate level, which was the main locus of debate on affirmative action.)

Today, most writers on affirmative action still play the class-versus-race card. They also ignore all the evidence showing that college administrators have extreme prejudices against working-class applicants. In this piece, I discussed that problem in the context of social profiling. I believe the article was ahead of its time. It still is, in fact.

Anyway, here it is. Many of the links in the footnotes are out of date, but I left them in order to show the original sources.

Class Notes: Social Status and Affirmative Action (2003 version)

The case for including socioeconomic status within affirmative action criteria has suffered more from its advocates than from its critics. Class-based affirmative action is rarely discussed, except when conservatives offer it as an alternative to race-based affirmative action, as in the Bush administration’s brief in the Michigan Law School case.1 Of course, such maneuvers are purely tactical: conservative interest in the college-admission prospects of working-class and poor applicants never goes beyond the level of gestures made during disputes over race-sensitive admissions.

Despite the neglect of liberals and the shameless ploys of conservatives, we urgently need a remedy for social discrimination. Also, broadening the scope of affirmative action to include class as well as race would shore up support for the policy at a time when it is in serious danger.

The increasing gap between rich and poor in America is nowhere more evident than in the area of college education. A 1998 Presidential Commission on the Cost of Higher Education reported sharply rising costs at undergraduate institutions, especially the private ones that increasingly dominate the US News & World Report rankings and other measures of prestige.2 In 1980, tuition at the average private university was $2,971 higher than tuition at the average public institution. By 1996, that gap had increased to $12,430.

Due to upward redistribution of wealth since 1980, working-class and poor families have borne the brunt of tuition increases at both public and private institutions, while rich families have taken tuition hikes in stride. Between 1980 and 1996, the ratio of average tuition price to household income approximately doubled for the poorest 20% of families, while staying almost exactly the same for the richest 20%.3

Likewise, education scholars Michael McPherson and Morton Shapiro discovered that cuts in the federal Pell Grant program and the failure of university-based scholarships to keep up with tuition have left working-class applicants especially vulnerable to rising tuition costs. Based on enrollment figures from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, they found that upper- and middle-class representation at colleges was unaffected by tuition increases, while percentages of lower-income students (defined as those from households with incomes below $20,000 in 1990 dollars) declined sharply as tuition rose.4

Perhaps the best source of information on the admissions practices and demographics of top universities is The Shape of the River (1998) written by former Princeton President William G. Bowen and former Harvard President Derek Bok, along with four other authors. In the book, the authors effectively countered objections to race-based affirmative action, but an unintended product of their work was to reveal the extent of social elitism at top universities.

Bowen and Bok drew their statistics from the Mellon Foundation’s “College & Beyond” database, a collection of information obtained from admissions statistics and student questionnaires That information came from 28 colleges and universities, heavily weighted toward elite private institutions, in three separate years: 1951, 1976 and 1989. Four Ivy League universities are included in the list, as are Stanford, a number of prestigious liberal arts colleges, and two of the highest rated public universities: Michigan and North Carolina.5 Subsequent discussion pertains to the most recent College & Beyond study (1989), unless otherwise indicated.

One aspect of admissions policy examined by Bowen and Bok was the practice of giving preference to children of alumni or “legacies.” Legacy admissions made the news during the debate over the Michigan affirmative-action case, and administrators at elite universities have been eager to downplay their significance. The Princeton University Admissions Office acknowledges that its committee takes legacy status into consideration, “when such an applicant is in the top part of our applicant group,” but adds that, “no student is admitted simply because he or she is the offspring of a Princeton undergraduate.”6

The Brown University Admissions Office states:

All other things being equal, qualified applicants from families that have a relationship with Brown may be at a slight advantage. Please keep in mind that happenstance of birth alone will not get one admitted to Brown; academic and personal achievement and promise will.7

Using admissions data obtained confidentially from three unspecified private institutions in the College & Beyond database, Bowen and Bok compared 1989 admission rates for African-Americans to those for white legacies and white non-legacies. (The authors did not compare data for African-American legacies and non-legacies, probably because the former category was too small to constitute a significant sample.)

White legacies were admitted at a greater rate than African-American applicants (44% to 39%) and at twice the rate of white, non-legacy applicants (44% to 22%). Among applicants who scored 1300 on the SATs, legacies were two-and-a-half times as likely to be admitted as non-legacies (60% to 24%).8 In fact, non-legacies with SAT scores above 1300 had about the same chance of admission as legacies who only scored in the 1100s (24% versus 22%).9 There is nothing “slight” about the advantages of legacy applicants.

In a counterpoint to their discussion of legacy admissions, the two former university presidents maintained that “the C[ollege] & B[eyond] schools seek to enroll individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.”10 Likewise, in their friend of the court brief in the Michigan admissions case, lawyers for eight institutions (Brown, Chicago, Dartmouth, Duke, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale) argued that their schools already applied a sort of affirmative action for working-class and poor applicants. “Admissions officials give special attention to, among others, applicants from economically and/or culturally disadvantaged backgrounds.”11

If that is so, Bowen and Bok’s statistics suggest that there is a wide gap between “giving special attention to” economically disadvantaged applicants and actually admitting them. The two authors compared enrollment figures for blacks and whites from different economic backgrounds in the 1989 College & Beyond cohort. They divided students into three economic categories, according to annual household income and whether or not the students’ parents held bachelor’s degrees. The categories were:

  1. High status, consisting of students from households with annual incomes above $70,000 and where at least one parent was a college graduate.
  2. Low status, consisting of those from households with incomes below $22,000 and where neither parent was a college graduate.
  3. Middle status, encompassing all others.12

Using census data, Bowen and Bok found that approximately 9% of Americans fit the high status category, while roughly 64% were middle status, and 28% low status (the figures do not add up to 100% because they are rounded off). At institutions in the Mellon database, the enrollment breakdown was as follows. The percentages for black students appear in the first column, percentages for whites in the second.

High status          15%               44%

Middle status      71%               54%

Low status           14%                  2%13

The authors called the small percentages of low-status students “striking,” and the fact that 50% of all African-Americans fall into the low-status category makes it even more so.14 A chart in the book’s appendices revealed that the percentage of low-status students at the Mellon schools was cut approximately in half between 1976 and 1989. In 1976, 4% of white students at College & Beyond database schools fit the low status category, compared to 2% in 1989. The proportion of black students from low-status backgrounds fell from 26% in 1976 to 14% in 1989. At the same time, the percentage of students from the top social category increased from 40% to 44% among whites, and from 11% to 15% among blacks.15

Turning to the most selective institutions in the database, Bowen and Bok declined to provide percentages for all income groups, but did specify that 12% of blacks at those schools, and only 1% of the whites, came from the low status category.16 It is unclear just how small the latter percentage is, because the authors always rounded off to the nearest whole number, which leaves the possibility that the 1% figure is actually rounded up. For comparison, Andover, President Bush’s prep school, accounted for 1.2% of full-time undergraduates enrolled by Yale between 1998 and 2001, even though Andover’s enrollment is under 1,100.17

Bok and Bowen’s social statistics appear yet more disturbing when we consider that officials at top institutions claim to place a high premium on the educational advantages of diversity. Such advantages are justifiably among the chief reasons cited for maintaining affirmative action. The friend-of-the-court brief submitted by Harvard and seven other institutions states that admissions officers at those schools, “have always sought to enroll a broad cross-section of students who can bring a critical mix of experiences and perspectives into the university community.” The lawyers also added this statement: “Diversity helps students confront perspectives other than their own and thus to think more rigorously and imaginatively; it helps students learn to relate better to people from different backgrounds.”18

That is true with regard to race, and equally true with regard to class. How are classroom discussions of poverty or economic policy at the most selective institutions influenced by the fact that 99% of white students and 88% of black students are upper- or middle-status, as defined by Bowen and Bok? Does the near total absence of low-status students at the most prestigious colleges encourage undergraduates at those schools to accept or reject the stereotype that poor people are lazy? Would not the addition of an economic category of affirmative action improve social diversity among black and Hispanic students at top colleges, and also concentrate the benefits of the policy more directly on the minority applicants who have suffered the worst discrimination?

Despite the grim evidence of social exclusion they uncovered, and its negative implications for universities’ quest for diversity, Bowen and Bok came out against class-based affirmative admission. They offered statistics that proved that minority enrollments would fall if class-based affirmative action replaced affirmative action by race, but they never considered the possibility that the two types of affirmative action could operate in conjunction.

Likewise, once the subject shifted from race to class, the two authors stopped basing their judgments on hard data and rigorous analysis. At one point they wrote: “Although some critics may believe that universities do not try hard enough to find qualified low-income applicants, this charge is probably unjustified.”19 Probably?

Nowhere in the main body of the book, nor in the 150+ pages of statistical appendices, did the authors test that claim, but evidence against it can be found in a source they cite extensively: an article by economist Thomas Kane, studying the results of achievement tests taken by graduating high school seniors in 1992. Kane analyzed the backgrounds of students who scored in the top 10% of all test-takers in both math and reading, separating the students by race (blacks and Hispanics in one group, whites in the other) and by two broad income categories (those from households with annual incomes above $20,000 and those with incomes below that figure).20

One finding of the study was that among whites who took the test, 6.1% of the top-scorers came from households in the below-$20,000 category.21 Those students overcame a great deal to outperform many test-takers from more privileged backgrounds, and that is precisely the sort of achievement admissions officers claim to be looking for in their applicants.

Recall, however, that only 1% of white students at the most selective College & Beyond institutions came from Bowen and Bok’s low-status category ($22,000 income and neither parent with a BA–comparable to the bottom social category as defined by Kane). That disparity alone indicates that there are many more highly qualified, low-income candidates for admission than top universities are currently enrolling. Another of Bowen and Bok’s objections to class-based affirmative action was that the policy was “probably prohibitively expensive.”22

That plea of poverty is especially odd, considering the enormous growth in top universities’ endowments during the 1990s. A 1997 list of university endowments showed that every Ivy League institution except Brown possessed an endowment of over $1 billion (Brown’s endowment measured $949 million). Harvard was first in the nation at just under $11 billion, and a year later that figure had risen to $13 billion. A study of endowments at all American universities in 1995-96 showed an average annual growth rate of over 17%.23

When building their endowments, colleges and universities benefit immensely from the tax exemptions that come with their non-profit status. In fact, the legal requirements for receiving a tax exemption are more lax for institutions of higher learning than for registered charities and other private, non-profit institutions. Unlike other non-profits, colleges and universities are not required to spend 5% of their endowments annually in order to maintain their tax-exempt status, and many colleges do not spend that amount.24

Private universities got a scare in 1995, when a Pennsylvania court revoked the state tax exemption for Washington and Jefferson College, an expensive private institution. The court found that the college failed to meet a number of criteria normally required of non-profit organizations. Particularly, it did not offer enough of its services free of charge nor did it benefit enough persons who were worthy of charity.25 An appeals court overturned the ruling on a 4-3 vote, but the question posed by the lower court is apposite: why should taxpayers face higher taxes in order to provide exemptions for institutions that are not only quite wealthy, but are truly open only to well-to-do applicants?

In a final attack on the idea of class-based affirmative action, Bowen and Bok offered this warning to admissions officers: “students with low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely than students of equivalent ability from high socioeconomic backgrounds to complete their studies, attain professional or doctoral degrees, and earn high incomes.”26

Of course, that piece of social profiling ignores many basic social factors that affect graduation rates and lifetime income. Most obviously, students from low-income backgrounds are more likely to have to drop out of school and find jobs in order to help support their families. Wealthy students with strong family connections in business or the professions hold obvious advantages over those without them, and elite fraternities, sororities and clubs allow rich students to make valuable contacts that improve career prospects and increase earning power. A particularly egregious case of the second phenomenon is Bowen’s own Princeton University, with its long tradition of socially exclusive dining clubs.

Bowen and Bok would not treat the obstacles faced by many African-American students as a reason not to admit them in the first place. However, they did just that in the case of low-income applicants from all racial backgrounds. Given their standing, they must have known that their book was going to be essential reading in college admission offices, and it was utterly irresponsible for them to sanction prejudices against economically disadvantaged applicants. Despite its effective defense of race-based affirmative action, The Shape of the River reveals the problems that stem from leaving affirmative action policy, and the defense of it, to university administrators.

It is time for progressives in the union movement, the civil rights movement and the press to take up the matter. The tools for implementing class-based affirmative action are already in place on American campuses. Colleges already collect financial information from applicants, and Bowen and Bok’s criteria of parental income and degree status make a good starting point for identifying economically disadvantaged candidates, though it would also be useful to distinguish between parents who are manual laborers and those whose occupations are non-manual. Of course, the new policy would spell the end of “need blind” admissions at the institutions where that practice exists. However, given the many indicators of class contained in the information available to admissions offices (home town, high school, legacy status), the idea of need blind admissions is chimerical anyway. And attempts to follow that policy have failed to make colleges more socially inclusive.

The best long-term solution would be to add socioeconomic status to the categories of discrimination prohibited by civil rights laws. Under the 1987 Civil Rights Restoration Act, institutions that receive federal funds, including those that participate in guaranteed student loan programs, are subject to US civil rights legislation. The federal government could therefore ban legacies and set goals and timetables for increased enrollment of economically disadvantaged students any time the country has a president and Congress willing to start treating socially exclusive practices at universities as a form of invidious discrimination. So far, politicians have shown little interest, though Senator John Edwards’s proposal to end legacy preferences is a welcome start. Another means of promoting national discussion on the topic would be to focus attention on the tax exemptions granted to rich colleges and universities, and on the small percentage of well-to-do taxpayers whose children get to attend those institutions.

All signs indicate that the Republicans intend to use affirmative action as a major issue in the 2004 campaign. If supporters of affirmative action do not find a way to counter the administration’s playing of the race card, they can look forward to increasingly effective employment of such tactics by conservatives in years to come. Campaigning for the expansion of affirmative action would allow progressives to blunt the edge of Republican racial politics, and also highlight the GOP’s love of social privilege. More fundamentally, such a plan would make a start on the first order of business for progressive politics today: finding ways to unite working-class people currently divided along racial, urban-rural or other lines.

  1. No. 02-516 In the Supreme Court of the United States. Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hammacher, Petitioners v. Lee Bollinger et al. Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae supporting petitioners (On-line press release of the Office of the Solicitor General:, 7.
  2. In US News & World Report “America’s Best Colleges” (2004), the top 20 universities are all private.
  3. Straight talk about college costs and prices: Report of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education (Phoenix, AZ: National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education and Oryx Press, 1998), 160.
  4. Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Shapiro, The Student Aid Game: Meeting Need and Rewarding Talent in American Higher Education (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 38-49, 136-144; Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Shapiro, “Does Student Aid Affect College Enrollment? New Evidence on a Persistent Controversy,” American Economic Review, Volume 81, No. 1 (March, 1991), 309-317.
  5. William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, in collaboration with James L. Shulman, Thomas L. Nygren, Stacy Berg Dale, and Lauren A. Meserve, The Shape of the River: Long-term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), xxviii-xxix The twenty-eight institutions in the database are seventeen research universities (Columbia, Duke, Emory, Miami (Ohio), Michigan, North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Northwestern, Pennsylvania, Penn State, Princeton, Rice, Stanford, Tufts, Tulane, Vanderbilt, Washington University in St. Louis and Yale) and eleven liberal arts colleges (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Denison, Hamilton, Kenyon, Oberlin, Smith, Swarthmore, Wellesley, Wesleyan, Williams). All the institutions are private except the following four: Miami, Michigan, North Carolina and Penn State.
  8. Bowen and Bok, 28, 28n.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 48.
  11. Nos. 02-241 and 02-516 In the Supreme Court of the United States. Barbara Grutter, Petitioner  v. Lee Bollinger, et al; Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher, Petitioners v. Lee Bollinger, et al. Brief of Harvard University, Brown University, the University of Chicago, Dartmouth College, Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University as Amici Curiae supporting respondents (On-line press release of Harvard University:, 20.
  12. Bowen and Bok, 48n.
  13. Ibid., 48-49.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., 341.
  16. Bowen and Bok, 40, 49-50. The selectivity rating was based on the average SAT scores of enrollees. The colleges and universities in the “most selective” category were Bryn Mawr, Duke, Princeton, Rice, Stanford, Swarthmore, Williams and Yale.
  17. That percentage is based on college placement figures made public by the Andover College Counseling Office ( and on Yale’s enrollment in 2001 as recorded in US News & World Report’s America’s Best Colleges (2001).
  18. Brief of Harvard University, etc., 19, 8.
  19. Bowen and Bok, 50.
  20. Thomas J. Kane, “Racial and Ethnic Preferences in College Admissions,” in Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips (eds.), The Black-White Test Score Gap (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998), 449-451.
  21. Kane, 449.
  22. Bowen and Bok, 50.
  23. Ronald G. Ehrenberg, Tuition Rising: Why College Costs So Much (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), 36-38.
  24. Ibid., 269.
  25. Ibid., 268-69.
  26. Bowen and Bok, 271.

Eyes on Racism, Part 3

George C. Wallace
George C. Wallace.

Eyes on Racism, Part 3 (Konch, Winter 2008)

“It really shook me and the people of Alabama.” – Governor George C. Wallace

Eyes on the Prize producers were especially eager to talk to George Wallace (1919-98), the most famous opponent of the civil rights movement. During Wallace’s first three years in office (1963-65), Alabama became the site of some of the most dramatic battles over civil rights: the Birmingham demonstrations, the integration of the University of Alabama, and the Selma campaign. It took months for Callie Crossley to get Wallace to agree to an interview. After many rebuffs, she got in touch with one of the governor’s fundraisers, and it was that contact who finally persuaded Wallace to go on camera.

Crossley broke with the production team’s usual practice of letting the episode’s white producer (in this case, DeVinney) talk to old segregationists. She did that because she had worked so hard to set up the interview and was determined to conduct it herself.[1]

The interview took place in the state capitol building, and Wallace was clearly enfeebled by the 1972 assassination attempt that had left him partially paralyzed. In fact, the governor’s poor health would lead him to announce his retirement less than a month after his interview with Crossley. Wallace also suffered from severe hearing loss, which required the producer to shout her questions.

Crossley began by asking the governor to describe segregation in the pre-Brown South. He replied that “it was not an antagonism towards black people, and that’s what some people can’t understand.”[2] In Alabama, he explained, “white and black have been together for so many years that their problems are small compared to some of the other parts of our country.” Crossley replied “Okay” in a low, disbelieving voice and moved quickly to Wallace’s “segregation forever” 1963 inaugural address. In a scenario repeated throughout the discussion, Wallace tried to cut short questions about the most offensive aspects of his record.

Crossley: You’ve heard the famous “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” . . .

 Wallace: (Interrupting) Yes, uh . . .

Crossley: Now let me ask the question.

The producer wanted to know if the governor intended his speech to be an act of defiance against federal law. Wallace acknowledged that he was wrong to say those words: “I shouldn’t have made any such statement as that, frankly, because I knew even myself that [segregation] was not going to last forever and it shouldn’t last forever.”

The governor then brought up his “stand in the schoolhouse door” opposing the integration of the University of Alabama in June 1963. He defended that action by noting that his confrontation with federal authorities ended without violence, unlike the integration of the University of Mississippi the previous year. In Mississippi, segregationist rioters killed two and injured dozens.

Wallace blamed the unrest in Mississippi on troublemakers from outside the South: “What the good people of Mississippi did not anticipate [was] all these folks from all over the country, all these hate groups in [the] Nazi Party, et cetera, coming to that city and almost destroying that great university.” In Alabama, on the other hand, his police “arrested a bunch of those kind of folks from California.”

The governor noted that he made a televised address during the integration dispute, in which he told all unauthorized persons to steer clear of the university campus. Wallace boasted to Crossley that after his speech, “even the Ku Klux Klan leader got up and said, ‘Governor Wallace says, “Stay away.” He’s gonna raise the constitutional question for all the people of Alabama.’”

Though it was not widely known at the time of the interview, keeping the KKK in line was easier for Wallace than he let on. The Klan’s Imperial Wizard, Robert Shelton, was a close, secret Wallace advisor who received a salary from the state highway commission.[3] But the governor’s most remarkable assertion about the integration of the university was his claim that the entire dispute was a matter of timing. “We were going to integrate [the university] the next year anyway,” he explained. “We wanted to set the timetable, and we were very upset at the federal government trying to set the timetable . . . They said, ‘No, you integrate this year.’”

Crossley moved on to some questions about Birmingham, and Wallace brought up the Klan’s bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September 1963, in which four young girls (Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley) died and 20 other churchgoers were injured:

The church bomb was, I said the man who—people who—did that ought to burn the bottom of the electric chair out. It really, it really [sic] shook me and the people of Alabama for somebody to have done what they did in that regards [sic].

In 1963, Wallace’s remarks had been quite different: “I deplore violence. But who started all this violence? There’s [sic] a lot of agitators and the Communist Party mixed up in this picture.”[4]

The governor’s 1986 tough talk on the bombers is also belied by the fact that in 1963 his state police undermined the investigations by the FBI and the Birmingham police, elements of which were evidently serious about catching the culprits. With great fanfare, state police officers arrested five suspects in the case, including Robert Chambliss, who would in 1977 be convicted of murder for the bombing. But in 1963, prosecutors did not bring any charges other than possession of an illegal quantity of dynamite—a misdemeanor. The three suspects who were convicted received $100 fines and suspended sentences. Their convictions were later overturned on appeal, but the arrests achieved two goals for Wallace: he gave the impression that he was actively pursuing the case, and the FBI and local police investigations were undermined.[5]

Wallace’s handpicked director of state police, Colonel Al Lingo, worked closely with the KKK in orchestrating the show arrests. According to a Birmingham police memorandum from that time, Lingo held a meeting in his Birmingham motel room on the night that his officers arrested the bombing suspects. Present were Wade Wallace, a relative of the governor, and a number of Klan leaders, including Robert Shelton. The same report specifies that Chambliss was arrested “in a joint operation” by a state investigator and a KKK representative who had been present at Lingo’s meeting.[6]

Chambliss and the other leading suspects in the case were members of the Cahaba River Boys, a select Klan “action group” with ties to Shelton and his Birmingham Klan chapter, Klavern 13.[7] It is unknown whether Wallace ever asked his advisor Robert Shelton about the Sixteenth Street Church bombing, but Shelton continued to serve as an advisor to the governor for a number of years thereafter.[8] During Wallace’s four gubernatorial terms, no one ever did “burn the bottom of the electric chair out” for killing those four girls, and only one of the bombers, Chambliss, went to prison.[9]

The day after the church bombing, Dr. King put the matter bluntly:

The governor said things and did things which caused these people to feel that they were aided and abetted by the highest officer in the state. The murders of yesterday stand as blood on the hands of Governor Wallace.

In the interview, Crossley was equally direct: “Martin Luther King said at that time that he felt—he blamed you for [the bombing]. He said you were responsible for that because of your words, and what you said had created an atmosphere.”[10] Wallace interrupted and his voice became much more agitated and angry: “Now listen, you know, you all come to me, but who is it I spoke like? I spoke like Lyndon Johnson spoke . . . [Senator J. William] Fulbright of Arkansas spoke the same way.” After listing other politicians who voted against civil rights legislation, Wallace came to the point:

I have never made any statement that offended black people, unless I said in those days I was for segregation. I never made any statement about inferiority or anything [of] that sort. I don’t believe that. I was born and raised among black people and they’re my friends.

Wallace then brought up the fact that black voters had supported him in the 1982 general election (when his opponent was Republican Emory Folmar, who was considered by many to be a representative of the extreme right). He argued that “if I had said anything that as [sic] the eastern press said I had . . . no self-respecting black would ever have voted for me.” Crossley tried to turn the conversation back to 1963.

Crossley: I think what [King] meant by that was, not you personally, but in the manner in which you spoke led other people sometimes to interpret that in a violent way, because they . . .

Wallace: (Interrupting) I spoke my—vehemently against the federal government, not against people . . . I never expressed in my language that [sic] would upset anyone about a person’s race. I talked about the Supreme Court[’s] usurpation of power. I talked about the big central government. Isn’t that what everybody talks about now? Isn’t that what Reagan got elected on?

Of course, overt racism had been a staple of many of Wallace’s 1960s speeches. In 1964 for instance, he told an audience at Harvard that African Americans were unfit for higher education because they were “easygoing, basically happy, unambitious, incapable of much learning.”

The main writer of that speech, and also of Wallace’s “segregation forever” 1963 inaugural address, was Asa Carter, the leader of an Alabama Klan group known for unparalleled brutality. Carter’s followers participated in a riot that ended the first attempt to integrate the University in Alabama in 1956, and they were also responsible for a series of attacks on the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, the Birmingham civil rights leader, and his wife.[11] In 1957, six members of Carter’s group kidnapped and castrated a black man[12] in an initiation rite.[13] The victim survived, and in 1960, an Alabama court convicted four of the perpetrators and sentenced them to 20 years in prison.

In June 1963, just three months before the Sixteenth Street bombing, Wallace made his first appointment to the parole board. Two weeks later, in an act of extraordinary leniency, that panel reversed its 1960 decision and waived the requirement that the four men serve one-third of their terms before becoming eligible to apply for parole. [14] (Except for one who died in prison, all the convicts in the case ultimately received early parole in 1965.)[15] Coupled with Wallace’s close relationship with Shelton, the board’s decision to hold early parole hearings in the castration case was precisely the sort of signal that led Klansmen to believe that they had carte blanche to carry out acts of terror.

Perhaps for that reason, Wallace was eager to turn the discussion away from the topic of the Birmingham bombing. He stayed on the offensive when Crossley tried to break in and his voice took on a desperate tone. Wallace again brought up the fact that Lyndon Johnson had been a segregationist while in Congress, before becoming an effective sponsor of civil rights legislation as president.

Wallace: You see, you keep coming back to me, but Lyndon Johnson has filibustered and talked more against civil rights bills than I ever did in my whole, entire life.

Crossley: Let’s . . .

Wallace: (Almost shouting) Yet you rehabilitated him. You rehabilitated Fulbright. You rehabilitated, rehabilitated [sic] all these other distinguished, fine Americans [who] had no hatred in their heart[s] for any man because of color. But you won’t rehabilitate me.

Crossley: I will, governor [laughs].

In this exchange, Wallace closely resembled his old campaign persona. He became more animated, poking the air with his index finger, and his voice took on a more rhythmic, oratorical cadence. Just before delivering the climactic line, “But you won’t rehabilitate me,” he flashed his trademark sneer. And he wasn’t finished.

Wallace: I can—listen—tell you this and you must put this on your program. I—do you have a [sic] honorary degree from Tuskegee Institute?

Crossley: No sir, I don’t.

Wallace: I have an honorary degree from the—from Tuskegee Institute, and that’s the most renowned Negro college in [pause] black college, if you want to say it, in the world.

Crossley proceeded to Selma. She asked if black citizens were “freely able to vote” in 1965 Alabama and Wallace responded: “Oh yes. Black people were allowed to vote, except they had, you know, you had to be able to read and write your name.” He did concede, however, that “there were some discriminatory measures passed by other folks regarding voting, not by myself.” Discussing the Selma marches, Wallace made the two statements that appeared in the episode. The first pertained to Bloody Sunday:

It was something that happened that, that [sic] enraged me because I didn’t intend for it to happen that way. [Cut] But I didn’t want them to get beyond that point where there was [sic] some people that told me there might be some violence.

The second dealt with Wallace’s request that President Johnson take over responsibility for protecting the march to Montgomery:

We got a report—how much it would take to guarantee absolute protection for everyone—and we didn’t have the resources. So I called on President Johnson in Article Four, Section Four of the Constitution to send us troops to help maintain order.

Wallace’s claim that he halted the march out of concern for the demonstrators’ safety differs sharply from the reason he gave at a meeting with state legislators back in 1965: “I’m not going to have a bunch of niggers walking along a highway in this state as long as I’m governor.”[16]

Likewise, most of the evidence indicates that Wallace had approved the tactics employed by his troopers that day. After Bloody Sunday, New York Times reporter John Herbers cited “a reliable source” who said that the decision to use clubs and tear gas against the demonstrators had been worked out in a meeting in the governor’s office. The same article quoted Selma mayor Joe Smitherman as claiming that the troopers’ actions were “in complete accord” with Wallace’s instructions.[17] A federal court later ruled that Wallace was responsible for the Bloody Sunday attack and that the “general plan as followed by the State troopers in this instance had been discussed with and was known to Governor Wallace.”[18]

It appears that Wallace did attempt to keep the two most violent lawmen—Jim Clark and Al Lingo—away from the scene, which suggests some desire to moderate police tactics.[19] Even so, it was ridiculous for the governor to claim to have been shocked by what his men did, since brutal assaults on black demonstrators, or African Americans who just happened to be nearby, had been a constant feature of his troopers’ modus operandi. That is especially true in this case, given that the march itself was a protest against a police riot by state troopers in Marion, Alabama, during which one of Wallace’s officers shot and killed a black man named Jimmy Lee Jackson. That story appeared in the episode and, combined with a great deal of violent footage from Bloody Sunday, it made the governor’s excuses sound all the more feeble.

Reverting once again to 1960s form, Wallace complained that the northern press overplayed the Selma story. He presented himself as a courageous underdog who stood up to snobby northern reporters:

It’s always been that way about the South . . . we have been a nation of rednecks and low-brows, and I stood on my own on Meet the Press and Face the Nation, Issues and Answers with the toughest folks that [have] been on television. They think they’re smarter than anybody else.

It was a familiar boast, but on this occasion, he included African Americans in the equation and gave the story a happy, Sun Belt ending:

I’m proud of the fact that I’m a southerner. I think if you look at what happened to us after the War Between the States, with no Marshall aid or Lend-Lease . . . that the black and the white people both suffered, but they all joined together and hung on until now we are part of the Sun Belt . . . [the] envy of the free world.

When Crossley turned the conversation back to Selma, Wallace nearly shouted that he had told Major Cloud to “do nothing that would stir up any trouble there. Just don’t let anybody attempt to hurt anyone.” An estimated 50-100 marchers required treatment for various injuries and/or tear-gas inhalation,[20] but Wallace told Crossley that “not a single person was harmed to the extent of having to be going to the hospital. There was no violence, beatin’ people down.”[21] Wallace’s plaintive tone distinguished his account of Bloody Sunday from Jim Clark’s. The two men’s remarks about that event were equally deceptive, but while Clark made his claims with brazen smugness, Wallace spoke with an urgency that suggested a man desperately trying to make his statements true.

An exchange near the end of the discussion encapsulates the governor’s representation of his past. He and Crossley had been talking about the changes the South had undergone in Wallace’s time.

Crossley: This is a change for the better?

Wallace: Oh, it’s certainly for the better. I recognized it was going to be for the better after the first year I was governor. I did object to some of the ways they wanted to artificially go about it by busing people back and forth, which was opposed by black and white alike. I’m still proud that I have an honorary doctorate in [sic] Tuskegee Institute, the most renowned college of—predominant[ly] black college in the world.

Crossley had expected Wallace to try to exculpate himself but was “shocked from the very first question” by his outlandish answers. “You have to be able to acknowledge what was clearly on the tape,” she says with a laugh. Was Crossley angered by Wallace’s sarcastic question about whether she had an honorary degree from Tuskegee? “The only emotion I had was frustration,” she explains. “I couldn’t break down the wall he had effectively built.” Crossley contrasts Wallace’s interview with Jim Clark’s, pointing out that while Clark lied repeatedly, he at least gave an honest account of his views on African Americans and the civil rights movement. “Jim Clark was very clear about how he felt. I appreciate that,” she said.[22] Wallace, on the other hand, had evidently concluded that his honorary degree from Tuskegee and electoral support from black voters had erased his previous offenses. He seemed genuinely perplexed that anyone would dwell on his racist actions and that even his political heir in the White House would want to conceal his debt to him.

It is now commonplace to see George Wallace as a man whose wounds caused him to reflect on and regret his past misdeeds. Today, images of the attempt on Wallace’s life, or of the wheelchair-bound candidate greeting black voters, appear as often as footage of the stand in the schoolhouse door. Likewise, John Frankenheimer’s 1997 made-for-television movie, George Wallace, ends with a scene of reconciliation at Dr. King’s old church in 1979, in which Wallace apologizes for his past actions—something that did not occur during the governor’s real-life visit to the church.[23] The man who appeared before Eyes on the Prize cameras was the real George Wallace, a man who showed more emotion when complaining about his damaged reputation than when discussing the horrific events of 1960s Alabama. Wallace’s performance overwhelms any sympathy the viewer might feel for him because of his infirmities and it puts a new light on claims that he felt remorse for his actions.

The series

It is easy to wish that Blackside producers had been more aggressive when questioning southern politicians. Reviewing a transcript of her conversation with Jim Clark, Prudence Arndt had a similar feeling. “I think I was too easy on him,” she says.[24] However, that sentiment must be balanced against Callie Crossley and James DeVinney’s enthusiastic reaction when they saw the interview footage and realized that Clark’s cold, unrepentant words made the perfect narration for one of the most dramatic scenes of the civil rights movement.[25] The producers’ non-confrontational approach persuaded a remarkable number of old segregationists to go on camera and speak bluntly.

Likewise, DeVinney points out that one reason Hampton and his staff rejected a more 60 Minutes-style approach was because they knew that countering each segregationist lie would require a great deal of stock footage and screen time. They feared that such an approach would marginalize the stories of movement activists.[26] Crossley adds that one reason why she let Wallace say all he wanted was because she knew that the entire interview would be available some day, and she did not want to give him cause to end it prematurely.[27] In that sense, the makers of the first Eyes on the Prize series self-consciously created a study of the 1980s as well as the period between Brown and the Voting Rights Act.

Viewed from that long perspective, these interviews belie sharp distinctions between the Old South and the New. Pritchett and Wallace successfully negotiated the post-segregation political world without ever facing their pasts. Clark is the odd one out. He neither hedged his bets, as Pritchett did, nor rose high enough to build a strong statewide or nationwide political base, as Wallace did. And he held office in a county where African Americans made up about half the population. These interviews vividly show the easy transition from “segregation forever” to the more subtle form of racist politics that followed the civil rights gains of the 1960s. After the segregationists retired, the game became still easier for new race-baiters like Trent Lott, whose careers started too late to include a stand in the schoolhouse door—or a punch on the courthouse steps.

[1] Crossley, interview.

[2] All references to George C. Wallace Eyes on the Prize interview refer to interview audiocassette (Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320456, Container numbers: 26616, 26617) and 16-mm work print (Barcode: 001142, Container numbers: 11309, 27516). Interview conducted by Callie Crossley, March 10, 1986.

[3] Carter, Politics of rage, 300.

[4] Time staff, “Where the Stars Fall,” Time, September 27, 1963, 17.

[5] Carter, Politics of rage, 189-92.

[6] A photocopy of the document appears in Elizabeth H. Cobbs / Petric J. Smith, Long time coming: an insider’s story of the Birmingham church bombing that rocked the world (Birmingham, Alabama: Crane Hill Publishers, 1994), 203. See also McWhorter, Carry me home, 547-551.

[7] Cobbs / Smith, Long time coming, 90.

[8] Carter, Politics of rage, 281, 342.

[9] Ibid., 139, 188-193, 300.

[10] A film clip of Dr. King’s quote appeared in George Wallace: Settin’ the woods on fire, Part 1 of 2 (The American Experience series, Public Broadcasting Service, 2000).

[11] Carter, Politics of rage, 107; Stephen Lesher, George Wallace: American Populist (Reading, Mass.: William Patrick, 1994), 263.

[12] The victim of the attack subsequently moved away from Alabama and avoided media appearances. Due to his apparent wish to avoid public attention, and the social stigma that accompanies someone who has suffered such injuries, I decided not to state the man’s name.

[13] Marshall Frady, Wallace (New York and Cleveland: Meridian Books, World Publishing Company, 1968), 173, 148; Dan T. Carter comment appearing in George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire, Episode 1 of 2.

[14] William Bradford Huie, Three lives for Mississippi (New York: WCC Books, 1965), 12-21.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Stephen L. Longenecker, Selma’s peacemaker: Ralph Smeltzer and civil rights mediation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), 173; Carter, Politics of rage, 247.

[17] John Herbers, “Selma’s Moderate Police Give Way to Troopers,” New York Times, March 9, 1965, 23.

[18] In his ruling, Judge Frank Johnson also said that Lingo and Clark were “acting under instructions from Governor Wallace.” Quoted in Garrow, Protest at Selma, 111-12.

[19] In his Eyes on the Prize interview, Wallace claimed that he had explicitly ordered Lingo not to go to Selma that day. Charles Fager corroborates that account in his book on Selma, writing that a few hours before the incident on the bridge, Major John Cloud of the state troopers and Dallas County Deputy Sheriff L.C. Crocker had told Wilson Baker that Lingo was going to pick up Clark at Montgomery airport when the sheriff returned from an appearance on a television news show in Washington, D.C. They also said that Lingo was supposed to “keep [Clark] busy until the whole thing was over,” which of course would have meant keeping Lingo away as well. But Lingo ignored Wallace’s orders, going to Selma anyway and sending a car to bring Clark. Clark arrived just as the march was reaching the bridge. Wallace Eyes on the Prize interview; Fager, Selma, 1965, 91. See also the interview with Wilson Baker in Raines, My Soul is Rested, 201-03.

[20] In the New York Times, Roy Reed wrote that 17 marchers received treatment for various injuries and that 40 required treatment for inhalation of tear gas. Later, Time Magazine placed the number of marchers who were hospitalized at 78, Newsweek reported that 17 demonstrators were hospitalized for “fractures and other serious injuries,” while “70 more were treated for cuts, bruises, and tear-gas after-effects.” Surveying contemporary accounts in his 1978 book, scholar David Garrow wrote: “Estimates of the total number of injured ran as high as ninety to one hundred.” Roy Reed, “Alabama Police Use Gas and Clubs to Rout Negroes,” New York Times, March 8, 1965, 1; Time staff, “Civil Rights: The Central Point,” Time, March 19, 1965, 24; Newsweek staff, “An American Tragedy,” Newsweek, March 22, 1965, 18-19; Garrow, Protest at Selma, 76.

[21] Wallace repeated that claim almost verbatim in an interview with his official biographer in 1990. Lesher, George Wallace, 347, 549, n 99.

[22] Crossley, interview.

[23] Carter, Politics of rage, 462-63, 467-68.

[24] Arndt, telephone interview with the author, June 15, 2004.

[25] DeVinney, interview, April 7, 2004.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Crossley, interview.