On May 15, 1972, in the parking lot of a shopping center in Laurel, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC, the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was the day before the Maryland primary, and Wallace scented victory. He spoke from a podium before a sizeable audience, voicing themes of populism and racial resentment, and received a warm reception. Shedding his coat, he waded into the crowd to shake hands with potential voters.
Suddenly the air was torn by the sound of gunfire, and a stricken Wallace fell to the ground. He had been struck by five bullets, one of which lodged in his spine. A man named Arthur Bremer, still firing a handgun, was wrestled to the ground by onlookers. The disturbed 21-year-old Bremer was indifferent to politics; he was driven to shoot Wallace solely for attention. Police later found his journal, which read: “Now I start my diary of my personal plot to kill by pistol either Richard Nixon or George Wallace…. to do SOMETHING BOLD AND DRAMATIC, FORCEFULL & DYNAMIC, A STATEMENT of my manhood for the world to see.”
Wallace survived the attack and was declared the victor of the Maryland primary the following day. He had also triumphed in North Carolina, Michigan, Florida, and Tennessee. But for him the 1972 campaign was over, and he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Wallace’s political journey from southeastern Alabama to the hot tarmac of a Maryland parking lot was long, winding, and marked with an almost unyielding hostility to African Americans and the cause of civil rights. He had a passion for politics since childhood and was elected to the Alabama state legislature while still in his twenties. In his early thirties he became a circuit court judge but trained his eyes on the governorship. In the 1958 campaign for the Democratic nomination, he was outflanked and defeated by a more racist candidate, and vowed never again to be outdone in pandering to anti-black sentiment. Wallace ran again in 1962 and won the nomination; in the general election he faced no Republican opposition and won the governorship with 96 percent of the vote.
He declared in his inaugural address, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” A few months later, he became a national figure for his “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door”, when he unsuccessfully tried to block the entry of two black students into the University of Alabama, which had been desegregated by federal court order. Soon thereafter, he mounted a similar effort against the admittance of four elementary school children in Huntsville. This effort also failed, but Wallace’s stand for segregation made him a hero to many.
His ambitions extended far beyond his native state, and he opposed the incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1964. Johnson won easily but Wallace’s thirst for power was unquenched. He ran a third-party campaign for president in 1968, with retired Air Force General Curtis LeMay as his running mate. Despite his notorious record, he piously and shamelessly declared, “I’ve never made a racist speech in my life.”
The Republican nominee, former vice president Richard M. Nixon, won a narrow victory over his Democratic opponent, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey. But Wallace’s third place finish was strong enough to encourage him to mount another run for the Democratic nomination in 1972. The atmosphere was febrile, as the Vietnam War still raged and riots tore the fabric of the nation’s cities. Wallace observed, “Somebody’s going to get killed before this primary is over, and I hope it’s not me.”
Wallace was very nearly correct; he was lucky to survive the attack on that May day in Maryland. But his political ambition was unextinguished. He was reelected governor and mounted yet another campaign for president in 1976.
Yet the man who stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama in 1963 would never stand up again. He spent the last decades of his life in constant pain.
In the years after the shooting, Wallace claimed to have a change of heart, and asked forgiveness for his racist past. He told one black audience, “I did stand, with a majority of white people, for the separation of the schools. But that was wrong, and that will never come back again.”
He ran successfully for a final term as governor in 1982, winning 90 percent of the black vote and then appointing a record number of African Americans to Cabinet seats and state boards. Whether his conversion was sincere remains a matter of debate. In its obituary for Wallace, the Washington Post acknowledged his change of heart but deemed his career a failure: “The sad fact is that from first to last, despite the sound and the fury of Wallace’s campaigning, little changed for the good in Alabama with his help. Throughout all his years in office, Alabama rated near the bottom of the states in per capita income, welfare, and spending on schools and pupils.”
Wallace found absolution from a hero of the civil rights movement, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, who wrote: “…he was a changed man; he was engaged in a campaign to seek forgiveness from the same African Americans he had oppressed. He acknowledged his bigotry and assumed responsibility for the harm he had caused. When I met George Wallace, I had to forgive him, because to do otherwise—to hate him—would only perpetuate the evil system we sought to destroy.”
Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.