1968, Supreme Court Decisions On Civil Rights: An Issue Raised By George C. Wallace – Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter
Anyone who believes that today’s political discourse has reached a new low should consider the political career and rhetoric of George C. Wallace, a 1968 Presidential candidate for the American Independent Party, a party formed by Wallace after the Democratic Party rejected his segregationist agenda. Wallace was at the forefront of resistance to the Supreme Court’s civil rights decisions, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
Wallace – Early Life and Alabama Governorship
Wallace was born in Clio, Alabama on August 25, 1919. Wallace followed politics from an early age and in 1935, won a contest to serve as an Alabama Senate page. Wallace stated at that time he would one day serve as Alabama’s Governor. Wallace attended the University of Alabama School of Law at Tuscaloosa directly from high school. He joined the United States Army Air Corps during World War II, serving from 1942 until 1945 flying bombers over Japan. Upon his medical discharge, Wallace became an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Alabama, and in 1946, was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives as a Democrat.
Wallace served as a Delegate to the 1948 Democratic National Convention. While he disagreed with President Harry Truman’s platform on civil rights (he believed civil rights issues were the sole dominion of the states), Wallace did not join the Dixiecrats when they walked out of the convention in protest when the Democrats adopted a plank calling for civil rights.
Wallace was appointed a Circuit Judge in 1953, and he had a reputation of being fair to all regardless of race, addressing African-Americans who appeared before him as Mister rather than by their first names, as was customary at the time in Alabama. However, Wallace also issued rulings that were unsympathetic to the civil rights movement, including decisions preventing the removal of segregation signs in railroad terminals. Wallace served as a Circuit Judge until 1958, when he made his first run for Governor. Wallace lost that race. Thereafter, Wallace adopted a stronger segregationist view and as a result had greater political success in Alabama.
In 1962, he ran again for governor, this time with the backing of the Ku Klux Klan, and won. At the end of his inaugural address, Wallace made his now infamous statement: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Wallace served only one term because, at the time, Alabama law only permitted a person to serve one consecutive term as Governor. When Wallace stepped down, his wife, Lurleen Burns Wallace, ran for governor in 1966 and won, although she died after serving only sixteen months. While his wife campaigned, Wallace signed into law a bill that nullified federal desegregation guidelines, resulting in Alabama losing Federal funds.
Wallace ran for Governor again in 1970. Former President Carter at the time referred to the Alabama gubernatorial campaign as “one of the most racist campaigns in modern southern political history.” Wallace appealed to white fear and used extensive racial rhetoric to win the runoff race. Due to changes in Alabama’s term limit law, Wallace was able to serve a second consecutive term as governor. Wallace also served a fourth term as governor from 1983 to 1987.
Wallace ran for President in four consecutive Presidential elections – 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976. In all but the 1968 election, Wallace ran as a Democrat. In 1968, he ran on the American Independent Party ticket with his former military colleague, Curtis LeMay, as the Party’s Vice Presidential candidate. Wallace’s platform in 1964 included opposition to integration and aggressive prosecution of crime. Wallace gave fiery speeches to the crowds who attended his rallies, including inciting them at a rally in Cincinnati to leave the stadium and encounter protesters. Wallace lost the 1964 primary to President Lyndon Johnson.
In 1968, Wallace again campaigned on a platform of ending Federal desegregation efforts. His platform also called for an isolationist foreign policy and demands that US allies pay more for military defense. Wallace received substantial support from extremist groups in his 1968 campaign and collected almost ten million votes in the popular election and 46 electoral votes. However, Wallace came in third behind Nixon, the winner, and Humphrey. Wallace made unsuccessful runs in the Democratic primaries in 1972 and 1976. While on the campaign trail in 1972, Wallace was shot and paralyzed in an assassination attempt.
Civil Rights, Supreme Court Decisions and Wallace
In June 1963, shortly after his inauguration as governor where he made his declaration regarding segregation, Wallace led the famous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” at the University of Alabama. Wallace symbolically stood at the door the University’s Auditorium to prevent two African-American students from entering and registering for classes. Wallace’s protest was in response to the integration efforts resulting from the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Despite the ruling in Brown, the University of Alabama continued to reject African-American applicants. In 1963, a Federal judge ordered three applicants be admitted to the University of Alabama, and when two of them attempted to enter the University Auditorium to register, Wallace took his “Stand.” US Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, who later would lead the efforts to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, confronted Wallace. In the end, the two students successfully registered.
In September 1963, Wallace again attempted to thwart integration by preventing four African-American children from entering four separate Huntsville, Alabama grade schools. A federal court intervened and the children attended the schools.
In a July 4, 1964 speech, Wallace decried the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as “a fraud, a sham, and a hoax” and the US Government as a tyranny “under sanction of the omnipotent black-robed despots who sit on the bench of the United States Supreme Court,” implying that the Civil Rights Act was the direct result of Brown and other Supreme Court civil rights decisions. Wallace stated:
The chief, if not the only beneficiaries of the present Court’s rulings, have been duly and lawfully convicted criminals, Communists, atheists, and clients of vociferous left-wing minority groups.
In March 1965, Wallace refused requests from President Johnson to mobilize the Alabama National Guard to protect civil rights marchers, insisting it would be too financially burdensome to do so. “Bloody Sunday” followed, during which hundreds of marchers were brutally attacked by police and deputized white citizens and Wallace again became a symbol of Southern segregation efforts. On October 29, 1969, the Supreme Court decided Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, ordering immediate desegregation of public schools in the South. Wallace blasted the Justices as being “limousine hypocrites” and the new Chief Justice, Warren Burger, and his court as being “no better than the Warren Court.”
George C. Wallace vociferously opposed the integration of schools in Alabama over the course of his career and took strong segregationist positions. Wallace did not spare his comments about the Supreme Court and unsuccessfully attempted to nullify the Court’s civil rights decisions. While he later tried to back down from his segregationist statements and views, his actions and words remain. Wallace’s “Stand” has been forever memorialized in popular culture such as Forrest Gump and in Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” In his battles with the Supreme Court, the Court remained the victor.
Dan Cotter is a Partner at Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd LLP and an Adjunct Professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies. He is also Immediate Past President of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to Butler Rubin or any of its clients, The Chicago Bar Association, or John Marshall.