Few names conjure the recalcitrant South, fighting integration with fire-breathing fury, like that of George Wallace. The central image of this “redneck poltergeist,” as one biographer referred to him, is of Wallace during his inauguration as governor of Alabama in January 1963, before waves of applause and the rapt attention of the national media, committing himself to the perpetual defense of segregation. Speaking on a cold day in Montgomery, Wallace thundered his infamous call to arms: “Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland … we sound the drum for freedom. … In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say … segregation now … segregation tomorrow … segregation forever!”
The story of dog whistle politics begins with George Wallace. But it does not start with Wallace as he stood that inauguration day. Rather, the story focuses on who Wallace was before, and on whom he quickly became.
Before that January day, Wallace had not been a rabid segregationist; indeed, by Southern standards, Wallace had been a racial moderate. He had sat on the board of trustees of a prominent black educational enterprise, the Tuskegee Institute. He had refused to join the walkout of Southern delegates from the 1948 Democratic convention when they protested the adoption of a civil rights platform. As a trial court judge, he earned a reputation for treating blacks civilly—a breach of racial etiquette so notable that decades later J.L. Chestnut, one of the very few black lawyers in Alabama at the time, would marvel that in 1958 “George Wallace was the first judge to call me ‘Mr.’ in a courtroom.” The custom had been instead to condescendingly refer to all blacks by their first name, whatever their age or station. When Wallace initially ran for governor in 1958, the NAACP endorsed him; his opponent had the blessing of the Ku Klux Klan.
In the fevered atmosphere of the South, roiled by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision forbidding school segregation, the moderate Wallace lost in his first campaign for governor. Years later, the victor would reconstruct the campaign, distilling a simple lesson: the “primary reason I beat [Wallace] was because he was considered soft on the race question at the time. That’s the primary reason.”4 This lesson was not lost on Wallace, and in turn, would reshape American politics for the next half-century. On the night he lost the 1958 election, Wallace sat in a car with his cronies, smoking a cigar, rehashing the loss, and putting off his concession speech. Finally steeling himself, Wallace eased opened the car door to go inside and break the news to his glum supporters. He wasn’t just going to accept defeat, though, he was going to learn from it. As he snuffed out his cigar and stepped into the evening, he turned back: “Well, boys,” he vowed, “no other son-of-a-bitch will ever out-nigger me again.”
Four years later, Wallace ran as a racial reactionary, openly courting the support of the Klan and fiercely committing himself to the defense of segregation. It was as an arch-segregationist that Wallace won the right to stand for inauguration in January 1963, allowing him to proclaim segregation today, tomorrow, and forever. Summarizing his first two campaigns for governor of Alabama, Wallace would later recall, “you know, I started off talking about schools and highways and prisons and taxes—and I couldn’t make them listen. Then I began talking about niggers—and they stomped the floor.”
Wallace was far from the only Southern politician to veer to the right on race in the 1950s. The mounting pressure for black equality destabilized a quiescent political culture that had assumed white supremacy was unassailable, putting pressure on all public persons to stake out their position for or against integration. Wallace figures here for a different reason, one that becomes clear in how he upheld his promise to protect segregation.