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above: Attempting to block integration at the University of Alabama, Governor George Wallace stands defiantly at the door while being confronted by Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach on June 11, 1963. (Library of Congress/Public domain)

Society & Culture

Reassessing the Legacy of George Wallace

There was a very odd occurrence in the “Cradle of the Confederacy” in July 1987: Presidential aspirant and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson paid a visit to the Montgomery, Alabama, home of George Corley Wallace.

It had been 126 years since Jefferson Davis stood on the steps of the Alabama capitol and been sworn in as the president of the Confederate States of America. It had only been 24 years since Wallace himself stood in that same place and been sworn in as governor of Alabama. In his inaugural address, Wallace promised to:

sound the drum for freedom…and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!

So why would Jackson come to call and publicly ask for Wallace’s support? Jackson’s political ambition and the slow, yet dramatic shift Wallace had made in his racial rhetoric over the years hold the key to this mystery. But what motivated Wallace to change—or was his change even genuine?

There was much more to Wallace than segregation. His appeal became nationwide, and the issues he espoused had tremendous influence on both major political parties over the years. But he is primarily remembered as that black-and-white image standing...

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