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Rogan's Recollections

(And Occasional Historical Observations)

The 1968 Presidential Campaign 50 Years Ago Today: Former Alabama Governor George Wallace

Photograph signed by former Alabama Governor George Wallace for James Rogan, 1971


[Excerpted from James Rogan's new book, On to Chicago: Rediscovering Robert F. Kennedy and the Lost Campaign of 1968]



"Hitler go home!"


The heckler in the audience screamed out the insult to the presidential candidate standing on the rally stage below. Cohorts who also came to disrupt the event cheered, and then they booed loudly at the candidate's reaction to it. Instead of appearing agitated, he smirked at the catcaller and replied, "Somebody needs to show that child where the little boys' room is!" That set the galleries afire – now the hostile mob screamed obscenities while the candidate's just-as-passionate supporters, albeit a substantial audience minority, tried to drown them out with cheers and chants of "USA! USA!"


Signaling to the troublemakers, the candidate roared into the microphones, "These young punks are the ones that decent people are sick and tired of. These little Nazis talk about free speech but won't allow it to others." More jeers and applause as he drove home his point: "You can't really blame these kids. This is what their professors are teaching them. So let me tell all you college professors something – you'd better get your protesting done right now, because when I become president, I'm going to ask my attorney general to indict every one of you who supports publicly a military victory over American troops fighting overseas. That's not dissent. That's not free speech. That's treason – and we're seeing the fruits of that treason at this college here today." (The quotations are adapted from actual speech remarks made by the candidate at various campaign rallies.)


If this sounds like a Donald Trump campaign rally, your guess is 50 years off. Long before President Trump began throwing rhetorical gasoline on the political fires burning around him, there was former Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, repeated violent police confrontations with peaceful black civil rights marchers in the South shocked white Americans, who responded to those outrages by supporting President Lyndon Johnson and his "Great Society." After winning his landslide 1964 election, Johnson and a Democratic Congress committed billions of dollars to welfare and social programs to help the poor and minorities work their way out of poverty. However, starting with the Watts riots of 1965, increasing militancy among newly rising black leaders gained heightened press coverage. Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown and Huey Newton (among others) became household names. They rejected Martin Luther King's calls for peaceful civil disobedience; some preached armed resistance and revolution.


Over the next three tense years, the evening news broadcasts showed riots, looting and arson in over 100 major cities. These haunting images from black neighborhoods ablaze left many whites believing that mobs of "ghetto radicals" wanted to burn down America. By 1968, an increasing number of these previously sympathetic white voters grew both scared and angry. Just as state-sanctioned abuses against earlier nonviolent civil rights marchers shocked them into demanding an end to segregation, this ongoing wave of violence stirred them once again, but in another direction. Polls showed that they responded to presidential candidates promising to restore law and order.


Many of them responded to George Wallace.


From the man who led the effort to oust Bill Clinton from office, Rep. James Rogan's "Catching Our Flag: Behind the Scenes of a Presidential Impeachment"


The short, wiry farm boy from Clio, Alabama, grew up so poor that the first home he shared with his new bride was a converted chicken coop. After working his way through college and law school, he entered the Army and saw combat in World War II. Upon returning home he became a prosecutor, a state legislator and a circuit court judge. During an unsuccessful run for governor in 1958, Wallace's comparatively moderate views earned him the endorsement of the NAACP, while the Ku Klux Klan supported his opponent.


Four years later, with federal court decisions ordering desegregation in the Deep South, Wallace ran again and challenged the U.S. Supreme Court's legal right to force its unelected will upon the states. Winning 96 percent of the vote (no Republican filed against him), he became the national symbol of Southern defiance by proclaiming in his 1963 inaugural address, "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 went on to make his point defiantly: When Attorney General Robert Kennedy's Justice Department sought to integrate the University of Alabama with federal troops, Wallace stood in front of the college's door and confronted Kennedy's deputy as cameras recorded the temporary standoff.


Wanting to test his populist message outside the South, in 1964 Wallace entered three Democratic presidential primaries. Hammering away on states' rights, a strong national defense, and law and order to combat violent racial and campus protests, he showed surprising strength with primary voters in Indiana, Wisconsin and Maryland. Those states gave him 34 percent, 30 percent and 43 percent, respectively. With his ideas now resonating beyond Dixie, he set his sights on the 1968 presidential election.


And so, 50 years ago today, Feb. 8, 1968, George Wallace announced he would seek the White House as a third-party candidate leading his newly formed American Independent Party. Wallace's was the first third-party presidential campaign to qualify for the ballot in all 50 states. The specter of him on every state ballot terrified both the Republican and Democratic Party establishments. The GOP feared Wallace would siphon votes from conservative Southerners, while Democrats feared a hemorrhage of their union and blue-collar voters from every region.


By 1968 Wallace had long since jettisoned his earlier segregationist message and instead focused on the populist themes he had used in 1964, adding to them a call for a complete military victory for U.S. troops fighting in Vietnam. "When I'm president," he declared, "you good people will be able to walk any street in Washington, D.C., safely, even if I have to keep 30,000 troops standing on those streets two feet apart with two-foot-long bayonets. And I'll throw in jail every rioter and every treasonous college professor supporting our enemies in Vietnam. The day for these anarchists, revolutionaries and communists is coming to an end."

How did his message resonate with a national audience? In October 1967, polls showed him with 10 percent of the vote. By the summer of 1968 he hit 16 percent, and pollster George Gallup reported, "If the presidential election were being held today, the strong possibility exists that… George Wallace would deny either major party candidate the electoral votes needed to win." It grew worse for the establishment: By the end of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in late August, a new poll reported that a surging Wallace ran only 7 points behind Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey – with the gap closing.


George Wallace never reached the White House, but he denied it to Humphrey, a diehard liberal and a recent Vietnam peace convert. On Election Day, Wallace racked up 10 million popular votes and 46 electoral votes. He put five states in his American Independent Party's column, and the electoral map that he divided put Richard Nixon (a moderate-conservative and a Vietnam War hawk) in the White House.