My parents never called him “the governor.” At their most respectful, they simply referred to him as “Wallace.” At other times, because they were not cursing people, they called him “that little Wallace man.”
To their way of thinking, my parents had perfectly good reasons to hate George Corley Wallace Jr. But those reasons are not easy to explain now, 35 years after he first came into our lives, lifting himself up and barreling forward across a podium, a projectile finger shooting out of a hard-clinched fist, his irritating, bent cornet of a voice making him unlistenable but unavoidable, both at once.
It was not that my parents were noticeably liberal, except by comparison to the Klan members who made life hell for any black man who dared to walk down the shoulder of an Alabama highway after sunset on a summer night. My mother paid her cleaning woman a dollar a day, plus all the stale bread and left-over bacon grease she could carry. My father referred to 65-year-old black men as “boys”; when they worked for him, plowing the garden or baling hay, they had to eat their meals on the back porch. Their food was served to them on used aluminum pie plates; after the black men finished eating, my mother would have them throw the pie plates away. Most of the time, my parents used the word “colored,” but there were more than a few times when I heard them say “nigger” too.
What my parents hated about George Wallace was that he would not allow us to be left alone. They resented the smallness of him, but they cringed at the loudness of him too. He came out of the same pseudo-populist lineage that had spawned Louisiana’s Huey Long, but to my parents and to a lot of other uneasy Alabamans, he suggested the lumbering “Big Jim” Folsom, a massive, shambling man who determined the highest good by keeping an eye on the lowest common denominator.
Big Jim, with his wife, “Miss Ruby,” at his side, had ruled Alabama politics for over a decade. My parents loathed him for his slovenliness, his slowness, and the cunning he disguised. But my parents feared George Wallace for another reason entirely. Big Jim rumbled along lackadaisically, collecting cud-chewing voters as he went, but Wallace was nobody’s laughingstock. Instead, he was a missile of a man, frightening in the stark directness of his assault. The first time he ran for the Alabama governorship, in 1958, with both candidates railing against federal desegregation orders, he lost to the decidedly more gentlemanlybut equally racistJohn Patterson. After that defeathis only defeat in a gubernatorial electionhe swore, according to some sources, that he would never be “out-segged” again. The way my parents heard the story, he vowed that no man would ever “out-nigger” him again.
And that, I think, is why they despised him. That is why, in the 1962 Democratic Primary, which at that time in Alabama was the only election that mattered, my parents campaigned openly for a genteel state senator named Ryan deGraffenreid. My mother wore a fake straw boater and a red-white-and-blue middy blouse. Along with dozens of other women in the same sailor-girl get-up, she sang “Alabama voters sing this song: Ryan. Ryan. Alabama voters sing this song: Ryan deGraffenreid.”
Wallace didn’t sing about anything. Instead, he brayed about “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He promised that, when the feds arrived to enroll blacks at Alabama’s state universities, he would “stand in the schoolhouse door.” I cannot think my parents disagreed with anything George Wallace was saying. But they hated him anyway. They hated him for saying such things on television. They hated him for saying such things aloud.
They hated him for disquieting their souls. They hated him for putting into words the ugliness they kept coward in their hearts.
I marched with my high school band in Wallace’s first inaugural parade, and the next summer I watched on television as he stood in the door at Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama, a schoolroom lectern in front of him as he went ahead with his useless states’-rights standoff against Nicholas Katzenbach from the U.S. attorney general’s office. I remember my mother saying, “This is an embarrassment to the entire state of Alabama.” I remember that, on most days, the maid did her ironing in the living room, where she could watch the soap operas. On that day, however, my mother told her to do her ironing in the kitchen, behind the closed kitchen door.
Four years later, I would march in the inaugural parade for Wallace’s already-dying wife, Lurleen, who had agreed to succeed him as Alabama’s governor, since he could not succeed himself. Eighteen months later, I got a vacation day from school in honor of Lurleen’s funeral. A special memorial section in the Montgomery Advertiser showed pictures of the Wallaces, newly married in the early ’40s, standing outside the converted chicken coop that was their first home. I knew I was supposed to feel sorry for the Wallaces’ youngest daughter, Lee, who would have to grow up without a mother. Instead, I only thought how the chicken coop must still have stunk of rotten eggs, rancid bird droppings, and damp, stale feathers. I wondered if Lurleen was lying in her casket that very day because she had breathed the air in such a fetid place.
That was the last time I thought very much about George Corley Wallace. The next year I went away to college, where once in a while someone would say to me, “You’re from Alabama. What’s your family think about that George Wallace?” With a straight face, I would say, “My parents were always deGraffenreid people.” Then I would tell them about my mother’s middy blouse and the “Ryan. Ryan.” song. I would tell them about how the Wallaces started out married life in a chicken coop, and I would tell them horror stories about Eugene “Bull” Conner, who turned the firehoses on black protesters in Birmingham. I would make them laugh just by saying the name of Wallace’s public-safety director, Al Lingo. I would be glad that I did not have to mention how much my mother paid the maid.
The day Wallace was shot by a would-be assassin, I was walking through the Student Union. I remember thinking, “What would anybody want to bother shooting George Wallace for?” I figured, if any white man wanted to shoot George Wallace, he was probably somebody crazy. I was right. Arthur Bremer just wanted to shoot somebody with a big name in politics. Apparently, as far as he was concerned it didn’t particularly matter whom he shot.
In all, Wallace served four terms as governor of Alabama. Powerful as he was, he had the law fixed so that he could succeed himself. There were scandalous stories about his second wife, Big Jim Folsom’s niece Cornelia Ellis Snively. (A former water-ski ballerina at Callaway Gardens, she had tapped Wallace’s phone in his bedroom at the governor’s mansion, hoping to learn what sort of rumors her now-paraplegic husband was spreading about her.) Then there was his third wife, Lisa, who had tried for a country-music career, singing duets with her sister Mona. (In Alabama, even when people put the two names together, they didn’t seem to get the joke.)
Somewhere along the way, Wallace turned to Jesus. He also took back all the vows he had made about the separation of the races. He quieted down and asked the people of Alabama for their forgiveness. The press left him alone. Black people voted for him in droves.
The other day, I called my father to ask him, “What about George Wallace dying?” Without pausing, my father said, “He fought the good fight. He kept the faith.”
I wanted to ask him, “Where in hell did that come from?” Instead, I realized that, in the end, George Wallace had managed even to work his magic on people who decades before had despised him. He had got himself forgiven, and a forgiven man is easy to forget. To forget him is to forget what he made us remember about ourselves. That, I suppose, is a kind of forgiveness too.