People who saw George Wallace as a racist populist may have missed the complexity hiding behind a facade. The man had many faces.
George loved the limelight, so he was compelled to continuously run for office, aiming for the top: first, to be Alabama’s governor; next, to be the United States president. But holding office wasn’t as important as winning it. George thrived on the thrill of the chase, even when it took him away from his duties as governor. He also needed power, so much so that he had his terminally ill wife Lurleen replace him when he was no longer eligible to serve as Alabama’s governor.
Underneath the shield of simplicity was a unique man with the ability to adapt to any situation and make it work to his advantage. He was so adept at being “the boy next door”, people did not look beyond that. When he dealt with bureaucrats, however, his personality changed and he acted in a manner suitable to the occasion.
He served in difficult, controversial times. Like other politicians of his ilk in the Civil Rights era, he did what was politically expedient, passionately attempting to hold onto norms of the past, especially white supremacy. Much was done under the guise of States Rights. He knew his infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” was futile, but he kept his campaign promise made in a speech when he said, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” Later, he claimed the word “segregation” was a misnomer; he’d intended to say “States Rights” in all three places. Then, he changed with the times and made amends by apologizing to relatives of four children who were victims of a bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963.
A determined man, being shot in an attempted assassination did not stop him from continuing to pursue his goals. His passion endured, and he didn’t waver after what he called his “accident.” His mantra was “Keep on keeping on,” even though being confined to a wheelchair meant he could no longer stand up for Alabama. He had supporters and opponents. People who loved him were fiercely loyal, and those who didn’t constantly harped on his faults.
Although George had three wives, he chose to be buried beside his first one, Lurleen. Their bodies rest in the Circle of Life Section of Greenwood Cemetery in Montgomery. Both past governors are still not too far from the Capitol of Alabama.