In the wake of George Wallace’s June 1963 “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” — when the recalcitrant governor made good on his campaign pledge to “Stand Up for Alabama” by attempting to block two black students from enrolling at the state’s flagship university — Wallace began entertaining dreams of greater glory. Unlike certain young, recently-elected, revanchist governors in our own historical moment, George Wallace believed he would be better positioned for a run at the presidency if he were actually sitting in office at the time of the campaign; with 1968 in mind, he asked the Alabama legislature to amend the state constitution so that he might win a second term in 1966. While he waited — fruitlessly, as it would happen — Wallace began considering an intra-party challenge to John Kennedy. (He would eventually announce his intentions in Dallas in November 1963, not far from where Kennedy would die less a week later.)
Urged on in this illusion by telegrams and letters he received from whites outside the South, Wallace seems to have attached a kind of Lost Cause mythology to his encounter with the Kennedy boys. Though overrun by a power-mad federal government bent upon the destruction of the south’s racial folkways, Wallace could imagine himself as a noble hero who — by keeping the segregationist faith — would soon enough be redeemed. One of the keys to Wallace’s perception of himself was, oddly enough, the belief that he was acting in a non-violent and dignified fashion, that his June encounter demonstrated strength rather than weakness before the law; in standing alone, he simultaneously embodied the spirit of all “true Alabamans” while demonstrating that he could keep their bloodiest impulses at bay. Styling himself a man of law and order, Wallace contrasted his own conduct with the actions of civil rights protesters around the country, the degenerate berserkers whom the governor believed were aiming to destroy the nation. His governorship was a blessing to the White Citizens’ Councils, who also believed in their own “respectability” and rewarded Wallace with enduring and unflinching loyalty.
Throughout the rest of the summer, Wallace and his advisers planned for the next stage of the campaign against school desegregation. He kept himself in the national headlines by complaining about the distribution of federal conservation funds (which he argued would force and integrated labor force on the state) and generating an absurd national controversy over a five-minute car ride the Justice Department had given to Martin Luther King, Jr. He appeared regularly on Meet the Press. In August, a federal judge ruled that the state’s “pupil-placement” law — instituted to thwart desegregation efforts — would require white-only schools in Tuskegee to open up spots for a handful of black students. Similar rulings quickly followed in Birmingham and Mobile, where — to Wallace’s astonishment — white school boards and other local officials neglected to howl in protest and quietly made plans to adhere to the desegregation orders.
Determined to inspire a confrontation out of thin air, the governor ordered the state National Guard into action on September 2, 1963, explaining that a show of force was necessary to guarantee “the peace and tranquility of this state.” Over a hundred troops surrounded Tuskegee High School shortly after 6:00 a.m., forestalling the start of the school year, while officials in Mobile and Huntsville agreed to avoid an identical scene by remaining closed through the rest of the week. Meantime, Wallace assembled hundreds more troops in Birmingham, where schools were scheduled to open two days later.
The irony of “states’ rights” trumping local autonomy was not lost on the public officials of the affected cities, who grumbled audibly about Wallace’s stunt. Albert Boutwell, Birmingham’s mayor, initially refused to delay school openings in his city. When the first day of classes was followed by a night of racist attacks and reprisals that killed one black man and injured nearly two dozen others, Boutwell relented and temporarily shut down the schools. From there, the situation deteriorated rapidly into farce, followed by tragedy. White Alabamans followed their governor’s lead and pulled their children out of schools rather than have them share space with blacks; Wallace then petitioned the state education board to close the depopulated schools altogether. New “private” academies were hastily assembled to receive white refugees, while Wallace himself participated in a bizarre game of hide-and-seek with US marshals who tried to serve him an order to appear in federal court.
By this point, George Wallace — the politically-motivated racist demagogue who believed he could actually maintain control over the whirlwind — had lost control over the crisis he’d inspired. On September 15, a bomb destroyed a Birmingham church, killing four young girls who would forever symbolize George Wallace’s Alabama. Though it would obviously be a mistake to heap the blame for the 16th Street Church bombings entirely onto Wallace’s shoulders the link between the governor’s vivid defense of “constitutionalism” and the violence that accompanied it is impossible to ignore.