A Gallery, a Governor and a Troubled Legacy

Portrait of Alabama Governor George C. Wallace

The portrait of George Wallace, Alabama’s 45th governor, which was prominently displayed in the Alabama Capitol Rotunda until recently.

I recall it as one of the most remarkable happenstances of my life.

Nineteen years ago, working as a news and public affairs specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, I was in my native north Alabama with a coworker and close friend interviewing Ed Horton, a unusually agreeable, courtly gentleman-farmer who had recently been nominated to the Alabama Agriculture Hall of Fame.

In the course of sharing his life, he mentioned something that hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks: While serving as a Democratic state senator from northwest Alabama, he had led the floor fight to oppose an amendment to the already chronically amended Alabama Constitution that would have allowed George Wallace to run for a second term as governor.  At the time, Alabama governors were limited to a single term.

I had read about Horton’s involvement in this remarkable but long-forgotten chapter of Alabama history only a few days before in Dan T. Carter’s The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics.

A Scion of Southern Progressives

Horton was the scion of a long line of Alabama progressives.  His father was James Edwin Horton, the judge who presided over the so-called Scottsboro Boys case — a kind of real-life Atticus Finch who showed compassion and magnanimity to a handful of wrongly accused black men in an era when such virtues were in appallingly short sort supply.

At some point in this protracted fight to secure a second term, Wallace, the brilliant political tactician, decided to carry the fight to Ed Horton’s own turf, challenging him to a debate at the Amphitheater at Florence State College (now the University of North Alabama).

Horton acceded.  What he didn’t know was that Wallace had arranged in advance to turn out some of his most avid partisans — people who were not averse to heckling and even hurling threats of physical violence at the beleaguered and outgunned senator.

As the atmosphere became supercharged as the debate dragged on, Horton advised his wife to work her way through to the back of the crowd.  After finding a secure place on the periphery of this dense, angry throng, she felt arm extending across her shoulder.

She turned to encounter Wallace’s smiling visage.

“Now, you know, I like you husband — he’s a fine fella,” Wallace proclaimed. “This is just politics.”

Perhaps no other act better expressed the essence of this damnably complicated man, one possessed of a generous heart, though profoundly blinded by political ambition.

Banishment from the Alabama Capitol Rotunda

I was reminded of this story while reading about the Alabama Historical Commission’s decision to remove Wallace’s portrait from the gallery of governors conspicuously displayed in the Alabama Capitol Rotunda — not only that of Wallace but also of Lurleen, his diminutive wife who reluctantly ran and was elected to succeed her husband when his efforts to amend the Constitution failed.

Thirty years ago, the Alabama Legislature considered these portraits of such importance that they were included permanently among more recent governors —Wallace standing in front of a cluster of flags, including the Confederate Battle Flag, bearing a wide, down-home Southern smile; Lurleen, the delicate, diffident Southern magnolia, sitting in a resplendent formal gown.

I must admit that I regard these removals with some sadness.  There is a measure of pathos to this, considering that George Wallace began his political career with the heart and soul of a Southern progressive.

An Aspiring Progressive Reformer

He had vowed early in life to set the political woods on fire as a reformer and a friend of Alabama’s abysmally downtrodden poor, and this included the state’s blacks, at least as far as this beneficence could be could be extended at the time.

His old friend and classmate, Frank Johnson, a Winston County-born Republican, who was destined as a federal judge to deal a series of mortal blows to segregation, regarded Wallace as a New Deal zealot with vaguely socialist convictions when the two debated current events late into the night as law school students at the University of Alabama in the 1930’s.

As a financially strapped student leader at the University of Alabama, he dreamed of overthrowing the Greek-dominated establishment and serving as an independent student body president, just as his idol, Carl Elliott, another Alabama progressive who would achieve political fame, had.

He was one of the few Alabama delegates who stayed behind at the 1948 Democratic National Convention when the majority of delegates stormed out in protest over the passage of the convention’s civil rights plank to form the dissident Dixiecratic movement.

Early in his career, serving as a Barbour County judge, he earned a reputation for treating black litigants fairly.

Henry Kissinger, reflecting on how Richard Nixon’s personal demons ultimately destroyed his presidency, offered this trenchant observation: “Imagine what this man could have achieved if he had been loved.”

Wallace certainly left a legacy, though not one that comports with the values and aspirations of the present age.

The Price of Blind Ambition

Imagine the mark George Wallace could have left if he somehow could have avoided these segregationist sirens, if he had hewed closely to his progressive convictions — if he had set the standard for a post-segregationist, post-racial South?

George Wallace was an inherently decent man driven by an unusually virulent ambition, one so all-consuming that he sold his early convictions for a mess of political pottage.

To be sure, he was a brilliant political strategist who dominated Alabama politics for three decades and, as a presidential candidate, played a critical role in realigning American politics in the latter half of the 20th century.

But his absence from the Alabama Rotunda gallery is testament to this 20th century political titan’s growing irrelevance in the 21st century.

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About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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