Bordered by Tennessee to the north, Georgia to the east, Mississippi to the west and Florida to the south. The deepest of the Deep South. Since 1960, Alabama has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate once: Jimmy Carter in 1976. This loyalty is generally taken to be an indicator of the state’s fiercely traditional, conservative values.
1963 was set to be a year of political change and upheaval in the United States, particularly in the South, and there are few facts that can better indicate the effect this change would have on Alabama than this; in 1963, the state had supported just one Republican presidential candidate since its founding. Ulysses S. Grant, in his successful campaigns of 1868 and 1872 was the one-man-anomaly. Alabama had sustained almost 150 years of total Democratic dominance.
When George C. Wallace ran for governor of Alabama in 1958, he ran against another Democrat, such was their ubiquity. Since the reconstruction of the United States after the American Civil War, the states of the former Confederacy (including Alabama) had constructed a series of laws in defiance of the 15th amendment to the Constitution. These laws were deliberately intended to prevent the South’s black citizens from registering to vote. The measures also succeeded in disenfranchising many poor whites. Alongside these came Jim Crow laws which enforced the separation of black and white citizens, a doctrine enshrined in constitutional law after an 1890 ruling declared that segregation did not violate the 14th amendment.
Wallace ran on what was seen as a liberal, progressive platform in 1958. His outspoken opposition to the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama even won him the support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His opponent in 1958 was one James Patterson, a man who was not only backed by the KKK, but officially accepted their endorsement. He made segregation the centrepiece of his campaign. The white voters of Alabama, suspicious of the growing Civil Rights movement (manifest at the time in the form of a well-known Bus Boycott in Montgomery) and threatened by federal interference with their hallowed segregation laws, jumped on board. George Wallace lost by a landslide and told one of his campaign aides “I was out-niggered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be out-niggered again.”
Alabama’s State Constitution prevented governors from holding two consecutive terms in office, so 1962 provided George Wallace with another shot at the job. The prior four years had been spent fulfilling his post-election pledge. Wallace blamed integration for issues ranging from crime to unemployment, refused to release the state’s voting records to the federal government and hired Asa Carter, founder of the local Klan chapter, as his chief speechwriter. When asked by a reporter why he now focused on race, Wallace replied, “I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.” That year, Wallace became governor with more votes than any other gubernatorial candidate in Alabama’s history.
On January 14 1963, George Wallace delivered his inaugural address as Governor of Alabama, standing on the exact spot where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as the President of the Confederate States of America at the beginning of the Civil War. The speech was written by Asa Carter and contained at its crescendo the statement,
“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.”
Wallace is said to have remarked; “I like that line. I like it, and I’m going to use it.” Use it he did, and it caused a sensation. Support from Alabama’s registered voters grew stronger than ever, and the speech catapulted him to national prominence. The New York Times, Time magazine and Newsweek all covered the address the following day. For Alabama’s black population, it caused dread. Martin Luther King Jr. spent the first three months of the year travelling to different cities responding to Wallace’s speech. John Lewis, then a 22-year-old civil rights leader in Alabama, said that ‘on that day, my heart sank. I knew his defense of ‘states’ rights’ was really a defense of the status quo in Alabama’.
George Wallace’s speech was not the catalyst for what 1963 was to hold for the Civil Rights Movement and the Deep South. But he would find himself in the eye of an era-defining storm that would sweep through his state that year. Later in life, Wallace claimed that he had always intended to skip Asa Carter’s most famous words on January 14. “But the wind-chill factor was five below zero when I gave that speech. I started reading just to get it over and read those words without thinking. I have regretted it all my life.”
“Segregation forever” defined Wallace’s career regardless, and set the tone for the fierce, violent and institutional opposition America’s black population were faced with in 1963.