Historical Figures Series: George Wallace’s Presidential Campaigns And The Beginning of ‘The Backlash’

David B Morris
8 min readMar 24, 2023

Part 1: The 1964 Democratic Party Challenge

We can’t pretend this image didn’t appeal to many Americans. gettyimages.com

As a historian, part of your job is that you have to write the truth about history, not just the people you admire. While I knew I was going to be writing about George Wallace at some point, I was obviously loathe to do so for reasons that are far too obvious.

Let’s be clear up front: Wallace’s segregationist policy and behavior as Governor of Alabama was not necessarily the worst or most cruel of the elected officials who represented the Deep South during the civil rights movement — governors like Orville Faubus of Arkansas and Jim Byrnes of South Carolina were at least as reprehensible. And compared to the personal behavior of Strom Thurmond, he can’t be called anywhere the most hypocritical of them. What Wallace’s behavior as Governor from the 1960s was simply the most public and at times the most cruel of any of the southern governors of that era, and it was for that very reason that it appealed to so many not just in the South, but in the North, not just Democrats but Republicans. The ‘backlash’ movement that began around time of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would be epitomized by many political candidates to this day, but for four consecutive election cycles George Wallace was the public face of it.

One of the best books about Wallace’s political life is called The Politics of Rage. This term could just as easily refer to the era we live in now. It does not take a genius to connect the dots between the people who voted for Wallace half a century ago and those who voted for both Donald Trump — and to a certain extent, Bernie Sanders — half a century later. Prior to Wallace’s arrival on the political scene, the term Populism was considered one of mixed repute — it had been linked to Jim Crow politics but also a political party in the 1890s that had argued for significant institutional change that both parties would eventually make policy in the Progressive era. After Wallace became a political force, populism had a dark tone that it has truly never recovered from.

But make no mistake: Wallace was speaking for a lot of people. History does not want to acknowledge it, then or now, but for far too many Americans in the 1960s and 70s, Wallace was considered the true voice of what so many in the country thought was wrong with it. Not just in terms of race, but with the disorder in the country, the clashes between generations and the two party system as a whole. It is not a coincidence that Wallace’s campaign slogan for his 1968 Independent run for President was ‘Not a dime’s worth of difference’. George Wallace had tapped into the frustration that far too many Americans felt then — and still do now — with the two-party system. Politicians on both sides knew about this and for four straight elections, just the specter of him terrified politicians in both parties. Because of his presence in electoral politics, there is an excellent argument that the shifts in the Republican party were unnoticed for nearly twenty years and that the Democratic party made the cost for it in at least two straight elections, and that it may very well have affected a third. To ignore George Wallace because he was a horrible human being is to ignore the ugly side of America then and now. And based on where we are as a country, we can’t afford to do that.

In this series of articles, I will only tangentially touch on Wallace’s actions and policies while Governor of Alabama — at this point most of the public is aware of them due to the ugliness of the battles for civil rights. Instead, I will focus on each of his presidential campaigns, what they signified each time he ran for both parties and what effect they had on both sides. I will start with 1964.

In November 15 of 1963, George Wallace announced his intention to oppose President John F. Kennedy for the Democratic nomination. He did so when he was in Dallas, just a few days before Kennedy was assassinated.

At the time, Wallace’s notoriety was at all time high for his decision to stop four black students from integrating Huntsville elementary schools and for standing in the school door at the University of Alabama. When Lyndon Johnson made it clear that he intended to make sure that the Civil Rights Act that had been stalled in Congress would be passed in the first year of his administration, Wallace saw an opportunity. Advised by a public relations expert in Wisconsin, he entered three Democratic primaries.

To be clear, Wallace did not run against LBJ so much as he did surrogates for him: in Wisconsin he ran against Governor John Reynolds. And no one was taking him that seriously initially: Reynolds continuous dismissed him throughout the run as ‘a kook… supported by right wing elements.” The media, the clergy, the AFL-CIO and even Wallace’s own party denounced him.

Such denouncements only fueled Wallace. He campaigned heavily in ethnic neighborhoods with immigrants from countries that had were under the iron curtain. These people were attracted to the message that the civil rights bill would affect their jobs, neighborhoods, property values and schools. Combined with an anti-communist message, Wallace had found a winning formula.

At one point Reynold’s told supporters ‘it would be a catastrophe if Wallace received 100,000 votes.” He didn’t receive that many — he received 266,000, almost a full third of the votes cast in that primary.

Wallace next appeared in Indiana, a state with a long history of Klan activity. Now the Democratic establishment was taking him seriously. Governor Matthew Welsh ran specifically so that Wallace would not be unopposed. He manipulated party machinery, touted his civil rights credentials and had himself photographed shaking hands with Johnson. Even Ted Kennedy made a stop in Indiana to denounce him along with the state’s Democratic Senators.

Wallace faced a far more difficult campaign in Indiana, heckled at a speaking engagement at Notre Dame and publicly refusing to return captured Civil War battle flag that his state had. But at the time there was a wrinkle in the primary that would end up benefiting Wallace in future campaigns — a closed primary that allowed Republicans to cross over and vote for Wallace. In this election, they had to sign an affidavit they would vote for the Democrat in the general election. In future years, Indiana — and other states — would not hold them to this.

Wallace’s showing in Indiana was below expectations after Wisconsin: he received 176,000 votes which only came to around 30 percent of those cast. However, given how serious the Democratic Party had taken his campaign this time, it was startling — and unsettling.

Then came Maryland, racially polarized. The Johnson campaign struggled to find a suitable candidate, finally settling on junior senator Daniel Brewster. At this point, the number of people against Wallace was staggering. Not just popular Senators such as Ted Kennedy, Abraham Ribicoff, Frank Church, and Birch Bayh were campaigning against him, but even some Republicans — Milton Eisenhower, the former President’s brother, stumped against him. This time, his strength came not just from his stance on race but from the Eastern shore, where it was said as much as 90% of the white vote was in his favor. Riots in Cambridge had erupted over an equal rights law’s repeal, and the National Guard clashed against him. When a baby was thought to have died from tear gas used by police, it seemed a PR disaster to the campaign, and it didn’t seem to help that a Neo-Nazi run party was favorable to him.

Despite that many thought Wallace could still win Maryland — and on primary day, he nearly did received a whopping 43% to Brewster’s 53%. He won 15 of Maryland’s 23 counties and outright among white voters. Only a combination of double the usual African American turnout and liberal votes from Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties prevented a Wallace victory.

But Wallace’s ambitions — and his gall — did not stop when the Democratic primaries ended. In what should have been a warning sign to both parties, he made a visit to Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee facing a landslide defeat in November and made what was an unprecedented offer. He wanted to run as Goldwater’s vice president, offering to switch parties if he could.

Goldwater, who was already on record voting against the Civil Rights Act, rejected the idea, officially because Wallace was a Democrat, unofficially because he was repulsed by Wallace’s racism. (Goldwater’s opposition was that he thought the bill was on its constitutionality, not because of any personal prejudices though it ended up costing him and the Republican Party because of that perception.) While one admires Goldwater for having principles that transcended wanting to win in November, it’s interesting to speculate what might happened had he chosen to take Wallace.

Goldwater would still likely have lost, but he might not have in a landslide. Just as Johnson’s presence on the Democratic ticket had ensure the South for JFK, Wallace’s might have done likewise for Goldwater. In addition to the five states Goldwater carry, he might very well have been able get him over the top in Florida (which Goldwater barely lost) Arkansas (a state Wallace would carry four years later) Virginia and Oklahoma (which was close). Perhaps the Wallace vote would have helped him in states such as Maryland and Indiana, and maybe put West Virginia and North Carolina in play. Perhaps as much as fifty to sixty more electoral votes would have gone into Goldwater’s column that November as a result of Wallace on the ticket. Given Wallace’s later electoral successes as well as his popularity in the North, it might have added as much as two to three million votes to the Republican total as well. It would still have been a Johnson victory, but Goldwater’s showing would have been a stronger one for the conservative wing of the party and he might have been able to contend for the nomination again four years later when the Vietnam War caught up with Johnson.

Of course, there would have been repercussions the other way. Johnson painted Goldwater as a racist with little evidence in reality; Wallace’s presence would have guaranteed it and Goldwater would have lost what support he had in the north and the Southwest. It might well have cost him Arizona, which he barely won anyway. Still considering that the sole justification Goldwater gave for choosing New York Congressman William Miller as his vice president was “he drives Johnson nuts”, there could have been an argument for choosing someone who already had a track record for doing that — and could have helped him electorally.

But Goldwater turned Wallace down and he had to save face by saying he had achieved his goals. Unfortunately, the 1964 election would be a disaster for Alabama electorally. An unpledged slate of Democratic Electors effectively removed Johnson from the ballot in Alabama. With Johnson not on the ballot, Goldwater rolled the victory in Wallace’s home state with nearly seventy percent of the popular vote. For the first time since Reconstruction, Alabama had Republican representatives in Congress, with five new House members. Wallace’s personal ambitions had cost his state dearly in November and considering that he was term limited by the state Constitution, his future prospects in the state looked grim.

No doubt LBJ breathed a sigh of relief, thinking Wallace would be a thorn in his side on civil right for the next two years but no longer a threat electorally. He and the Democratic Party had no idea what the next four years would be like for the nation and that by 1968, LBJ would be politically dead — and George Wallace would be the boogeyman for both the Democrats and the Republicans.

In the second installment, I will cover Wallace’s 1968 third party run for the Presidency.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.