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.

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