- George Corley Wallace and the Continuity of American Racism
The four-part title of Dan Carter’s biography of George Wallace promises more than the book can deliver, but readers expecting a gripping and well-informed narrative will not be disappointed. Carter, Kenan Professor of History at Emory University and auth or of Scottsboro, winner of the Bancroft Prize, brings to his task a record of distinguished scholarship in southern history. Carter spent the better part of a decade interviewing scores of Wallace contemporaries and exploring Wallace-related files in Alabama and elsewhere in the South and in federal repositories, including the Library of Congress, the FBI, and the presidential papers of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter.
In his first two chapters Carter reconstructs the Wallace family origins in Clio, Alabama and traces George’s young adulthood through Army Air Corps service in World War II. As a child George Corley Wallace reminds us of young Huey Long and Lyndon Johnson, emerging from the womb hell-bent for the White House. Like Huey and Lyndon, George appears singularly driven by an unhealthy ambition. Carter acknowledges Wallace’s stronger points—he was quick-witted, a scrappy athlete, handsome in the manner of a small-town sport of his region and era, often gracious in victory. In a fresh portrait of airman Wallace’s wartime service, Carter describes harrowing Superfortress missions over Japan (Wallace’s high-stress job as flight engineer was to keep the notoriously troublesome B-29 engines from exploding), including a fair-minded account of Wallace’s discharge under a 10 percent disability for “psychoneurosis.”
On balance, however, by young adulthood Wallace displays few redeeming qualities and no endearing ones. Carter describes an unprincipled opportunist, driven by insecurities unknown, an outsider and loner incapable of close friendships, a womanizer and che ating husband, a self-absorbed politician clawing his way up the greasy pole. This is the Wallace of familiar legend, abandoning the rural liberalism of his youth to lead the parade of [End Page 332] racial demagoguery. Outbid by John Patterson for the segregat ionist vote in Alabama’s gubernatorial primary of 1958, Wallace vowed not to be “out-niggered” again. “I started off talking about schools and highways and prisons and taxes—and I couldn’t make them listen,” Wallace explained. “Then I began talking about niggers—and they stomped the floor” (p. 109).
The middle third of Carter’s book covers events largely familiar from the civil rights literature on the 1960s—Alabama’s war against the NAACP, Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door, his complicity in the violence at Birmingham and Selma, his success i n the Democratic presidential primaries, his runs for the presidency in 1964 and 1968. Carter’s best chapters describe the colliding ambitions of Wallace and Nixon during 1968 and 1972, including the shooting by Arthur Bremer and a bizarre chain of Waterg ate-like circumstances linking the Nixon White House to the campaigns of Wallace and McGovern. Carter is especially effective in describing the conflicted roles of key individuals in Wallace’s supporting cast, for example his first and second wives, Lurle en and Cornelia; his close political advisor, Seymour Trammell; his younger brother, Gerald, “the fixer”; his loose-cannon vice presidential running-mate, General Curtis LeMay.
For all his prodigious research, however, Carter was unable to include either interviews with Wallace himself or substantial research in Wallace’s private papers. Wallace, unwilling to provide ammunition to a hostile academic biographer, instead gave excl usive interviews and special access to his papers to Stephan Lesher, a former reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser and later for Newsweek, who agreed in the mid-1980s to split with Wallace a publisher’s advance from Norton and coauthor an autobiography. When Wallace’s failing health among other factors made this infeasible, Lesher decided to write his own biography of Wallace. By 1990, Carter and Lesher were locked in a biographer’s race.