George Wallace, one of the most controversial politicians in U.S. history, dies in Montgomery, Alabama, at the age of 79.
George Corley Wallace was born in Clio, Alabama, the son of a farmer. He worked his way through the University of Alabama Law School and after World War II served as assistant state’s attorney for Alabama and a judge. In 1958, he made his first bid for Alabama’s gubernatorial seat. The NAACP endorsed him while the KKK endorsed his opponent in the primary. Wallace was defeated by a wide margin. Four years later, Wallace ran again, this time as a fiery segregationist, and won election to the governor’s office in a landslide victory. In his 1963 inaugural address, Wallace promised his white followers: “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” However, the promise lasted only six months. In June 1963, under federal pressure, he was forced to end his blockade of the University of Alabama and allow the enrollment of African American students.
Despite his failures in slowing the accelerating civil rights movement in the South, Wallace became a national spokesman for resistance to racial change and in 1964 entered the race for the U.S. presidency. Although defeated in most Democratic presidential primaries he entered, his modest successes demonstrated the extent of popular backlash against integration. In 1968, he made another strong run as the candidate of the American Independent Party and managed to get on the ballot in all 50 states. On Election Day, he drew 10 million votes from across the country.
In 1972, Governor Wallace returned to the Democratic Party for his third presidential campaign and, under a slightly more moderate platform, was showing promising returns when Arthur Bremer shot him on May 15. Three others were wounded in Bremer’s attack on a Wallace rally in Maryland, and Wallace was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. The next day, while fighting for his life in a hospital, he won major primary victories in Michigan and Maryland. However, Wallace remained in the hospital for several months, bringing his third presidential campaign to an irrevocable end.
After his recovery, he faded from national prominence and made a poor showing in his fourth and final presidential campaign, in 1979. During the 1980s, Wallace’s politics shifted dramatically, especially in regard to race. He contacted civil rights leaders he had so forcibly opposed in the past and asked their forgiveness. In time, he gained the political support of Alabama’s growing African American electorate and in 1983 was elected Alabama governor for the last time with their overwhelming support. During the next four years, the man who had promised segregation forever made more African American political appointments than any other figure in Alabama history.
He announced his retirement in 1986, telling the Alabama electorate in a tearful address that “I’ve climbed my last political mountain, but there are still some personal hills I must climb. But for now, I must pass the rope and the pick to another climber and say climb on, climb on to higher heights. Climb on ’til you reach the very peak. Then look back and wave at me. I, too, will still be climbing.” He died in 1998.