George Wallace: Biography, Quotes & Assassination Attempt

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will be introduced to former Alabama governor George Wallace, and, through quotes and examples, gain insight into his important role in the African American civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Who was George Wallace?

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, African Americans built a nation-wide protest movement that demanded equality and civil rights. Since then, leaders of the civil rights movement have become icons through film and television portrayals in which they are often shown in contrast with opponents of equality and advocates for segregation. This lesson will introduce you to one of those opponents - George Wallace, and help you to understand the role that he played in one of the United States' most complicated and transformative eras.

George Wallace was born in Clio, Alabama in 1919. Early on in his life, he developed a strong interest in politics, and entered the University of Alabama Law School in 1937, immediately after graduating from high school. After graduating from law school in 1942, he entered the military and fought against the Japanese during World War II.

George Wallace, 1967
Wallace 1967

After leaving the military in 1945, Wallace took a position as an assistant attorney general with the state of Alabama, and was elected to the House of Representatives in the following year. During his time as State Representative, George Wallace identified as a democrat who had mixed feelings and opinions on the growing issue of African American civil rights.

In 1952, George Wallace became a circuit judge in Alabama, where he maintained his moderate views on African American civil rights. After a failed campaign for governor of Alabama in 1958, Wallace demonstrated a shift in his perspectives on the civil rights movement, from moderate to conservative. Later in his life, Wallace admitted that his adoption of an intolerant perspective was because he believed that his moderate opinions on civil rights had cost him the election.

George Wallace and the Civil Rights Movement

In the decades since the end of the civil rights era (late 1970s), George Wallace has become a major character in the narratives that surround the movement. Though his name is often connected to names like Martin Luther King Jr., or events like the school integration, George Wallace is generally portrayed as a villain.

After adopting a pro-segregationist and white supremacist agenda, George Wallace was elected governor of Alabama in 1962. During his 1963 inauguration, Wallace delivered what is perhaps his most notorious speech, in which he strongly opposed integration of African Americans, declaring that he would 'toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.'

As governor, George Wallace took a strong stance against the integration of Alabama schools, even going so far as to personally block the door of the University of Alabama in order to prevent four African American students from entering. This act demonstrated to the people of Alabama that he was living up to a campaign promise, in which he assured voters that he would 'resist any illegal federal court order, even to the point of standing at the schoolhouse door in person, if necessary.'

Wallace personally blocking school integration, 1963
Wallace 1963

Throughout his appointment as governor, Wallace's position on segregation garnered considerable media attention, leading him to become the face of southern opposition to the civil rights movement. In an interview with the U.S. News & World Report, he rejected the claim that he was a racist, explaining that 'A racist is one who despises someone because of his color, and an Alabama segregationist is one who conscientiously believes that it is in the best interest of Negro and white to have a separate education and social order.'

George Wallace ultimately served four terms as Alabama governor (1963-1967, 1971-1979 and 1983-1987), while also running for President four times.

Assassination Attempt

While campaigning in Laurel, MD, in 1972, George Wallace was shot in the chest and stomach by a man named Arthur Bremer. Wallace was rushed to the hospital, where they were able to stabilize him, but one bullet had lodged in his spinal column, which left him paralyzed from the waist down.

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