Wallace Joins the Ghost Brigade

A nightmare for many in his day,
Wallace now helps keep the dream alive


In 1982 a coalition of poor whites, blue-collar workers and African Americans put George Wallace back in the governor's office. Alabama was a poor Southern state fast becoming even poorer under President Reagan's take-no-prisoners wealth redistribution binge. On the eve of his inauguration, Wallace's voice trembled as he recalled the campaign. He saw grown men cry. If it wasn't for the wife working, they might be on the streets. When a man couldn't support his family, when he really wasn't needed anymore, when he was that afraid, his very manhood became an elusive mirage--and he cried.

"Some of you have summoned me in your weakness,'' Wallace said from the inaugural platform in January 1983. "All of you must sustain me by your strength."

Then he directed his words to the strong.

First the federal government:

"TVA must lower rates charged small farmers, and the FHA stop foreclosures and other punitive actions against farmers. Without the food they produce, he said, people become "nothing more than a prattling mob of rabble grasping at one another for survival."

The USDA must "at once release surplus food commodities over and above the butter and cheese allocations"--food was "piling up in America while people go hungry."

Then to the bankers :

"... avoid foreclosures and dispossession ... leave their personal property undisturbed ... extend the time for payments."

"One of our biggest mistakes as a nation," he said, "... is that the America that emerged following the second World War was one for which we were not totally prepared.

"We rebuilt Europe, expanded our factories, produced more goods than any nation in the world. But in the process, there fell from our grasp a great truth--the truth that the measure of the strength of any great nation is not the quantity of its resources, but the quality of life of its citizens.

"And now, we see the big bankers of this nation and the world showing reckless disregard for good business practices, trying to make a big profit, until they have endangered the financial stability of the free world."

He quoted Goldsmith, more or less:

"Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay;
Princes and lords may flourish or may fade;
A breath can make them, as breath has made;
But a bold peasantry -- a bold middle class -- their country's pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied."

"... And all the while debt, the root of bonded labor, sits at our dinner table like a hungry stranger. All over the world, sovereign nations face default in the face of international bankers, and agree to lower their people's living standards and pay still higher interest rates to stay afloat. But ... it is the average man who is called upon to feed this hungry stranger."

And to the pyramid-building odd couple of 1980s wealth, the newly rich and the newly temporal:

"We recognize and applaud the desires of those of great individual wealth to build among us monuments to high culture and entertainment.

"We recognize and applaud the great temples of worship and Christian education that religious denominations seek to build and assert upon our landscape to glorify almighty God.

"But for God's sake, let us also hear the sighs of the hungry and the cold among us. Let us do unto the least of these, and God will reward us with his blessings in His way in His time.

"No one can be rich, as long as there are those among us who are hungry.

"Any nation that forgets its poor will lose its soul."

At the beginning of his speech he expressed gratitude for "your confidence in my good intentions." And at the end he expressed hope that over the course of his new term in office, "none may say ... our intentions were not good." For African Americans who helped sweep George Wallace back into the governor's office, who remembered his "segregation forever" inaugural address exactly 20 years earlier on those very Capitol steps, "good intentions" was not an insignificant phrase.

"I say your government is back in the hands of the people again,'' he declared near the end of his 30-minute speech, about as forcefully as his paralyzed and pained body would allow, "and we care."
It was his last inaugural. In barely three years he announced he would not seek re-election. He thought he could win, he said, but the time had just come, whatever that meant. George Wallace cried.

When he lay in state in the antebellum Capitol rotunda for the 24 hours preceding his Sept. 16 funeral, African Americans filed by his long-spent, withered little body in numbers disproportionate to their population. When the hearse slowly made its way from the Capitol to the church, African Americans stood on the curbs in numbers disproportionate to the crowds that once turned out to watch him go by. When his coffin was carried into the Methodist church, the pall bearers were uniformed state troopers, exactly half of whom were African American, disproportionate both to their population and to the Department of Public Safety.

At the end, perhaps, George Wallace knew who his friends were.

James Hood walked into the church a few minutes before the coffin arrived. Wallace stood in the school house door to prevent James Hood from registering at the University of Alabama.
A seat remained reserved for Jesse Jackson. He didn't make it. The Rev. Jackson and Wallace had become friends of sorts. They had prayed together on more than one occasion. They'd not just shaken hands, they had held hands. Sometimes they held hands in the privacy of Wallace's modest home, sometimes at public events commemorating great civil rights victories over that same George Wallace.

By the time he died, Wallace hadn't run for office in 16 years. It was a long goodbye. He was too frail and pained and otherwise disabled to be of much use to anyone but African Americans, as a symbol of redemption. His poor-white constituency became caught up in pseudo-religious political fervor, and still is.

In post-1982 elections, whites and people of color typically went their separate ways, often deliberately opposite ways, as if Wallace had changed nothing. Maybe he hadn't.

The awesome apex of Wallace's power came in his first term and in that of his wife Lurleen, who presided over his de facto second term. That's when the conservative state press most often raised the specter of another Huey Long, meaning dictator. That's when he had whites whipped into a blind frenzy, and black children were being murdered. That's when Wallace was so popular he overwhelmed a plantation-minded legislature to create almost from scratch a statewide community college and trade school system, provide free textbooks to elementary and secondary children, expand rural health care, invest heavily in sanitizing mental institutions, pave roads, and require state contractors to pay union scale.

He would argue, as did Huey Long, that any program to help poor and working class whites invariably helped blacks, too; they were in the same boat.

He never said, as Huey said, "Sometimes you have to taint yourself with evil in order to get the power to do good."

The ghosts of a century of populist dreams filled the church. Angels with a dirty side. Many fallen angels. George Wallace potentially was the most powerful prism for a true rainbow coalition, at one time. Wallace was no pot of gold. But preserving some of the organs in that old carcass are essential, probably, to keeping the dream alive.

As the rocky dirt was shoveled into his grave, the ghost of Huey Long watched from beneath a nearby oak. Seventy years earlier in Martinsville, La., Huey Long stood under a much larger oak, supposedly the one under which Longfellow's Evangeline once stood.

Long's words echo now, not as a dirge but as a breeze:

"And it is here under this oak where Evangeline waited for her lover, Gabriel. This oak is immortal, but Evangeline is not the only one who waited here in disappointment. Where are the schools, the roads and highways, the institutions for the disabled you sent your money to build? Evangeline's tears lasted through our lifetime--yours through generations. Give me a chance to dry the eyes of those who still weep here."

Claude Duncan is a writer and former Washington public affairs operative who covered Wallace for Alabama newspapers from 1968 until 1984. He now lives in Panama City Beach, Florida.

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