Following law school and military duty, George C. Wallace went on to become a judge and local politician. From the 1960s until the 1980s, he served four terms as governor of Alabama and tried unsuccessfully for the presidency three times. Wallace is recognized for his staunch support of racial segregation in the 1960s, despite his later efforts to improve his public image. On September 13, 1998, he died in Montgomery, Alabama.
Background and Early Life
George Corley Wallace Jr. was born in Clio, Alabama, on August 25, 1919. George Corley Sr., his father, was a farmer. His mother, Mozelle Smith Wallace, had been abandoned by her mother as a child and reared in an orphanage in Mobile.
Wallace began boxing as a child and went on to win two Golden Gloves state titles while attending Barbour County High School. He worked as a legislative page in the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery when he was 15 years old. He enrolled in the University of Alabama School of Law in 1937 and graduated in 1942.
Military Service and Local Government
Wallace joined the United States Army Air Corps after graduating from law school and participated in World War II. In 1945, he performed many bombing missions over Japan before being dismissed with a medical condition.
Wallace returned to Alabama to reconnect with his wife, Lurleen (née Burns), whom he had married in 1943. Wallace decided to pursue municipal law and politics and worked as an assistant to the state attorney general in 1946. He was elected to the Alabama State Legislature the following year, where he served for two terms.
Wallace was elected to the Alabama Third Judicial Circuit Court in 1953, a seat he maintained until 1958. He was dubbed “The Fighting Tiny Judge” because of his boxing days and his severe approach to his work.
Governor of Alabama
Meanwhile, Wallace was preparing to run for governor of his own state. He failed his first attempt in 1958. He gained re-election in 1962 on a platform of racial segregation and state rights, with the support of the Ku Klux Klan. His controversial inaugural speech concluded, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
In another event in 1963 that reinforced Wallace’s public image, Wallace led a “stand-in the schoolhouse door” to prevent two Black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling at the University of Alabama until the National Guard intervened. Throughout his presidency, he remained staunchly opposed to integration.
Wallace temporarily entered the presidential primaries in 1964, but he lost in the three states where he was on the ballot. He slipped out of contention soon after, but he exploited his third-party foothold to run three more times.
Wallace put his wife, Lurleen, on the ballot in 1966 after the Alabama legislature refused to modify the state Constitution to allow him to run for a second term. She died in office in 1968, after winning a landslide victory. Wallace was re-elected in 1970, and then again in 1974 and 1982, becoming the first (and only) person in Alabama history to serve four terms as governor.
Wallace had presidential ambitions as well. He campaigned as an Independent candidate in 1968, and was mostly backed by white, working-class Southerners. Nonetheless, he ran as a Democrat in his 1972 campaign. Later that year, while on the campaign trail in Maryland, Wallace was shot by a would-be assassin called Arthur Bremer. His injuries rendered him paraplegic below the waist indefinitely. He finished the campaign, but lost the Democratic nomination to George McGovern (who eventually lost the presidential election to Richard Nixon).
Wallace ran as a Democrat in his third and last presidential bid in 1976, but was beaten in the primaries by fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter.
Later Life and Death
Wallace attempted to remodel his public image beginning in the late 1970s by changing his former stance on race issues. He argued that many of his words had been misconstrued, and he underlined his populist sympathies. In certain circumstances, he apologized publicly for his previous actions. By the end of his fourth term as governor of Alabama, he had gained significant support from African political organizations and voters. His attempts to enhance the state’s economy, health care, employment, and infrastructure were widely seen as a success.
Wallace resigned as governor at the end of his final term in January 1987 due to bad health. On September 13, 1998, at the age of 79, he died of heart failure in Montgomery, Alabama.
Wallace has three marriages. He married Cornelia Ellis Sniveley in 1971 (divorced in 1978) and Lisa Taylor in 1981, in addition to his marriage to Lurleen Burns, with whom he had four children (divorced in 1987).