The most consequential politician in Alabama is easily Barbour County’s George Corley Wallace. Over three non-consecutive stints, Wallace served 16 years as the Yellowhammer State’s chief executive.
Nationally, most remember Wallace for his use of racial demagoguery — positioning himself as the defender of segregation by declaring “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in his 1963 gubernatorial inaugural address and “stand[ing] in the schoolhouse door” at The University of Alabama later that year.
However, if you take away all the racist antics, his failed bids for president of the United States and the 1972 failed assassination attempt on him by Arthur Bremer in Laurel, Maryland, he would still be Alabama’s most significant governor.
Alabamians still feel Wallace’s impact today. Consider the interstate highway system in Alabama. Much of that was built during Wallace’s tenure. If those roads were built a mile or two in a different direction, entire cities in Alabama would not be what they are today.
For example, had I-65 and I-459 not intersected where they do now, Hoover would not be as relevant as it is today. The 1.5 million-square-foot Riverchase Galleria, which set the tone for Hoover’s future development, would not have been built.
Closer to home, had I-10 not crossed Mobile Bay and entered the Eastern Shore precisely where it does now, Spanish Fort and Daphne might look completely different.
This is the case for the routes of more Wallace-era interstate highways — I-10, I-65, I-85, I-20 and I-59. If he had not pushed through completion of those highways in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, many small Alabama towns would have vastly different economies than they have now.
Alabama’s two-year college system, which has seen its ups and downs in recent history, was a Wallace achievement. Without Wallace, there would almost certainly be no Talladega Superspeedway.
Before I get angry letters chastising me for offering the achievements of an “evil racist,” let me be clear: This is not an ode to segregationist Wallace. This is a thought experiment.
What if Wallace had been more cooperative with the desegregation of public schools in the 1960s? Could many of Alabama’s inner cities have stymied the destructive consequences of white flight to the suburbs if Wallace had taken a different approach with his leadership? Might that have in the long-term helped places such as Prichard, Selma and Tuskegee avoid some of the challenges they face today?
For those reasons and many more given the era he served and the overall length, Wallace has had a lasting impact on Alabama, and its people still feel it today.
What he is remembered for is entirely different. It is serving as governor during Selma’s 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It’s backing Eugene “Bull” Connor in Birmingham, who turned fire hoses and dogs on African-American protesters.
Despite his best efforts to rehabilitate his image in the 1980s, he will always be remembered as the segregationist governor of the 1960s.
One of the latest trends in American political activism is to seek the destruction of monuments, statues and other reminders of the Confederacy or slave owners. The argument is we should not pay homage to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis or any other man that took up arms against the U.S. to support an institution dedicated to the continuance of slavery. The Confederate flag is taboo and, with it, so too are reruns of CBS’s long-running “Dukes of Hazzard.”
That begs the question: How far is this movement from going after those on the wrong side of history during the civil rights era in America? Is George Wallace destined for the new order’s history guillotine?
Given their role in Alabama, the state has honored Wallace and his wife, Lurleen Burns Wallace, also a former governor of Alabama, by attaching their names to many public structures around the state.
There’s the George Wallace Tunnel that connects Mobile and Baldwin counties with I-10. Three community colleges in Alabama are named for Wallace: Dothan’s Wallace Community College, Dallas County’s Wallace Community College Selma and Hanceville’s Wallace State Community College. There is also Andalusia’s Lurleen B. Wallace Community College.
The main stretch of U.S. Route 43 in northwestern Alabama in Franklin County is called the George Wallace Highway. Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals share George Wallace Boulevard.
Aside from a random newspaper column here and there, there has not been a full-force push to change those names. However, it is undoubtedly a possibility one could arise. What happens if and when it does?
Could a governor give in to pressure from outside interests threatening a boycott and push the Legislature to rename public buildings and institutions named for Wallace? Could these same interests make some corporations think twice about locating their factories in Alabama given it is a state that honors segregationist George Wallace?
And in future years, will there be the appetite to defend Wallace’s legacy?
After the 2015 Charleston church shooting, the Confederate flag did not have many defenders in governors’ mansions around the South. If one publicly attempted to defend it, they faced scorn and ridicule for being a racist kook.
The same would likely be true if a push to purge George Wallace’s name ever gains momentum.
Wallace seems like an eventual possible target. In this world where the politically correct crowds constantly move the social goalposts that define what is and is not appropriate, how would Alabamians react? If not Wallace, then who else might be worthy of being commemorated with their names attached to these public structures?