here at sinkhole, we’re explorers, not explainers – our goal is to chart the world's complexities, to resist the echo chamber, and to engage in the difficult work of empathy.
essay | 3.1.17
George Wallace last ran for President in 1976.
Despite an assassination attempt that left him paralyzed from the waist down, Wallace still refused to oppose gun control, defiant about this aspect of “liberalism” as he was of anything that smacked of peace, of “tolerance,” of open-mindedness. I don’t know how to define “political correctness” in our contemporary age, but I know that whatever it is, Wallace was its opposite. The KKK endorsed Wallace that year (but proved that it didn’t go solely for southern politicians by endorsing Ronald Reagan in 1984). Of course, David Duke himself ran for President in 1988 (as a Democrat) and in 1992 (as a Republican), but then he never stood a chance of being the nominee of either party because both are too sane to choose anyone who uses or endorses using overtly racist language.
Except here we are. I will never forget that “The Crusader,” a Klan paper, led with this headline only a couple of weeks before we voted: “Make America Great Again.” Effectively endorsing Donald Trump, this wing of the KKK let us all know that whether or not Trump disavowed their support, he was a racist draw; he was their man.
I understand that disaffected working class white people feel disparaged and neglected, scorned even, by the Democratic Party and by liberal elites. I get that it’s the Party’s fault for allowing this segment of its one-time base to fall away, though I also understand that in the history of America’s two major parties, many in this class came to the Democrats because of race, and many, perhaps of a similar kind, left the Party for that reason, too.
The question on my mind lately is: how will the rest of us be able to resist the temptation to lump Trump’s supporters with the Wallaces and the Dukes and the militia members who call for revolt?
It’s not easy to forget those who powered Wallace to victory after victory in Alabama; those who cheered so wildly as he strutted and fretted, and spat at dissenters, across armory and municipal auditorium stages throughout the state and then throughout the nation while running for President in 1964, ’68, ’72, and ’76.
There is a scene from a filmed Wallace rally where Wallace calls out one of his protesters – calls him out in language, I think, that only someone who has been raised or has spent much time in the rural South can truly get: language that not only threatens our immediate body, but suggests the last days of our life. It’s his use of one word against the protester, shouted as this man is being “escorted” out of the hall. Wallace calls the man “pahdnuh,” his tone as he spits the word telling us everything. To be singled out in a Wallace rally, a place where the Klan and its sympathizers listened and shouted and hated, could mark a person. I’ve had white men look at me and call me “pahdnuh.” I know what that feels like. I know the look in their eye. But they were just local men.
They weren’t candidates for high office.
In Laurence Leamer’s account of the last public lynching in Alabama (The Lynching, William Morrow, 2016), Wallace’s behavior in his 1964 Presidential run suggests strange parallels to what we’ve been seeing lately on and behind the campaign trail:
Unlike other presidential candidates, Wallace didn’t have a team of aides churning out speeches and position papers. He had only a few speeches that he gave over and over again…To his audiences, Wallace seemed refreshingly raw and authentic. Most of those who came…roared their appreciation when he pointed out what he considered the overwhelming hypocrisy of so many northern politicians and professors. He strutted across the stage wiggling his fingers as he mocked lefties in Berkeley calling him a racist…Wallace had hooked into anger among working-class and lower-middle-class whites who thought the American Dream was no longer within reach…[and who] did not want to be forced…to live next to blacks, especially while well-off Americans lived in suburbs where there were almost no black residents…[Wallace] loved to taunt [protestors] and to hurl invective at them. His rallies always had an undertone of potential violence. He loved that and needed it. This was all a marvelous game to him…
In his own crowds, his media events and press conferences during the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump singled out reporters for chastising; he led his supporters in taunts of the media, of Mexicans, and of his former opponent, Hillary Clinton. He seemed to revel in crowd scuffles. Like George Wallace after he failed to win the Alabama governorship in 1958 and then succeeded in 1962, Trump might have spouted racist rhetoric because he believed this to be the ticket, the direct flight, to his election. Maybe the only flight left on that big board.
And it worked.
If we showed footage, sound turned low, of Wallace side by side with Trump, what would we notice, or conclude? If not for the graininess of sixties’ film stock, could we tell who is who? Okay, maybe the one black guy in Trump’s crowd would tip us off.
In Wallace’s heyday, there were no “Blacks for Wallace” signs. In 1964 Alabama, it wasn’t that a large percentage of black adults didn’t vote for the Democrat just because he was Wallace; they didn’t do so because so many were still disenfranchised from voting at all.
On that reality, welcome to the future – during the 2016 election, there was no evidence of voter fraud, but there was evidence, a lot of it, of voter suppression.
In 1962, my parents voted for Ryan DeGraffenreid for Governor of Alabama. My parents hated George Wallace for many reasons, most of all that Wallace hated Jefferson County and Birmingham, my dad’s hometown. I have no documented proof that Wallace hated B’ham, but it was true that while he was Governor, the interstate highway system in Alabama was completed everywhere but in the Birmingham vicinity. Wallace was from Barbour County, in the southern part of the state, and this proves only that even within states of the Old Confederacy, white people harbor mistrust, envy, vindictiveness, and even hate.
Wallace won the race (the Democratic primary back then being the de facto election since no Republican could get elected anywhere in the South through the early sixties), but four years later, by Alabama law, could not succeed himself. Thus his wife ran and was elected, easily, though she had never held a political or government office before.
Even if he had been Governor, Wallace would have still abandoned the state to run for President in 1968 as he tried to do in 1964, I believe. Even though his wife lay dying of cancer in the Montgomery Governor’s mansion, Wallace ran for President in the Democratic primaries. And even though he did not win the Democratic nomination, Wallace still ran for the nation’s highest office, as an Independent.
He received more than 13% of the popular vote, while still advocating a segregationist position, while still being openly supported by Robert Shelton, the Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America.
As Thomas B. Edsall recently pointed out in the New York Times, the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights in 1964-65 caused “millions of white voters” to choose either Nixon or Wallace in 1968 – together, they received 56.9% of all votes cast in that election, including “six out of every ten white votes,” as Edsall writes, “laying the groundwork for the conversion of the segregationist wing of the Democratic Party into a key component of the modern Republican Party.”
Again, my parents did not vote for Wallace. My dad, for the first time in his life, voted Republican. He said he would have voted Democrat had LBJ, whom he voted for on the straight Demo ticket in ’64, run, or had Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson been nominated. Dad voted for political “hawks.” So Dad voted for Nixon.
My mother, after Bobby Kennedy, her favorite, was killed the night of the California primary, voted for Hubert Humphrey, former and future Senator of Minnesota and Vice President to LBJ.
Dad couldn’t abide the law-and-disorder Democrats that year, and even after Nixon won, Mom said, “Oh well, let the Republicans have it for a while and see what they can do.”
By 1974, we had all seen.
But back in 1968, I was a seventh grader, a twelve-year-old whose friends mainly screamed for Wallace, parroting their parents’ views. I, of course, wasn’t sure which of my parents’ views to parrot. Except I knew not to mention Wallace. Our schools in Bessemer had been integrated only for the past three years at that point, so it didn’t take a genius to understand that in a still predominantly white junior high school in Alabama, Wallace would be the popular choice for President. Indeed, his red-lettered-on-deep-blue-background stickers adorned every notebook and locker in sight. I don’t think I knew any kid who supported Nixon or Humphrey. Or, like me, if they did, they dared not admit it.
Does it seem strange, after everything that happened in the '60s and '70s, to consider Nixon a saner choice than Wallace? Is it stranger, or weirdly in line with today’s “normal,” that Wallace’s running mate, retired general Curtis LeMay, advocated nuking North Vietnam and maybe the Red Chinese? And that 13% voters screamed “YES! DO IT!”
If Wallace had stayed home and done the manly, the humanly thing, by attending to his dying wife, Humphrey might have been elected, and we might have been spared the crisis to our collective conscience known as Watergate. At the very least, it would have taken another term or two for us to see, to know, to take in fully that a President of the United States would and could say goddamn and motherfucker (I’m only assuming Nixon said motherfucker, as I haven’t read the transcripts in at least thirty years). But then, had Humphrey won we might still be fighting a war in Vietnam, because when it comes to your leaders, how can we know for certain which way the weather vane will tilt?
While “Alt History” is fun to contemplate, lived history gives us scenes we often can’t believe even fifty years after they happened.
Scenes like, for instance, my seventh grade social studies class and our 1968 mock-presidential election.
Our teacher, Mrs. Selmon, asked the class to divide into three camps, corresponding to the three main candidates, Humphrey, Nixon, and Wallace. Funny, isn’t it? While every sane person knew that Wallace had no chance to win, just like, say, Gary Johnson, Mrs. Selmon insisted that he be one of our viable choices. My usually precise memory lets me down at this point because I simply cannot remember how she put it. I think it went something like this:
“Now, even though Wallace is the best choice, we must remain open-minded about our campaigns and vote for the group that presents the best case for its candidate.”
That Mrs. Selmon supported Wallace and did so openly defies the role I now see for teachers, of not projecting his or her choice onto the impressionable minds of students of any age. Our class was exclusively white, although I feel pretty sure that had we two or four or twelve black students, Mrs. Selmon would have still very openly declared for George Wallace. As it was, in our class, in this particular day and age, she needed neither to plead nor cajole. She didn’t mandate that the three groups be equal, either. They just needed one spokesperson.
For Humphrey, that person was Denise, a pretty blond whom my good friend Fred had cited as his girlfriend back in sixth grade, whether Denise knew it or not. Because she was pretty, or soft-spoken, or because two other kids were Democrats, her staff seemed active, if not full. They made one campaign sign that stated, oh so simply, “Humphry for President”; however, the initial three letters in the candidate’s name were printed – in blue magic marker – on the left side of the poster board, ascending, while the remainder of the letters ran horizontally across the top of the poster. Beyond the poster, Denise had little to nothing to say about HHH except that he had been our country’s Vice President for the past four years, a fact that not even Wallace supporters could deny.
The “Nixon campaign” was led by a girl named Mary, assisted by a future junior high dropout named Saul, already sixteen in this fateful year. I might be making it up that he helped her, because one day I overheard Saul telling Mary that she was “cute.” Mary, in fact, had a nice smile, but wasn’t cute by the conventional standards agreed upon by both seventh grade boys and girls. It didn’t help that Mary wore a most visible white girdle either, one that reached down almost to her kneecaps. Mary’s sign, however, was all that Nixon could have hoped for in a seventh grader:
“If your for Nixon
Then vote for him.
Vote for Nixon.”
Though its spelling was off, its logic wasn’t.
Maybe ten different kids claimed to be chairing the Wallace campaign. I remember that one of them, a girl named Sheryl, worried that our class would not end up electing Wallace. That was like being afraid that the school cafeteria would serve edible food.
In the end, I don’t think either Denise or Mary voted for the candidates they managed. But Wallace didn’t get all the votes. My friend Robert, whose brother supported Eugene McCarthy, wrote in Smother Brothers’ sidekick Pat Paulson.
And I voted for Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s unmanageable beagle.
When Mrs. Selmon read aloud the results and came to the outliers, she adopted her sternest look and scolded the anonymous two who dared “make a mockery of our sacred duty.”
But was our duty to vote, or to vote for a God-fearing racist?
Education is funny business. In 1968 Bessemer, Alabama, going to school with black children was only barely tolerated by anyone white. Watching your teachers, those supposed mentors and role models, salivate over Wallace and get blood in their eyes over Charles Darwin was only barely understood.
But when Richard M. Nixon won the presidential election that year, while I didn’t exactly understand what this American decision meant, I did think one thing: the rest of the union saved Alabama from itself and from infecting the other forty-nine states with its peculiar disease.
Before this election, my mother ran into my old seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Selmon, in the grocery store. Mrs. Selmon took a minute before launching into a tirade on how she feared Hillary Clinton, how Hillary isn’t even a Christian (of course, she’s actually Methodist, as is my mother, who corrected Mrs. Selmon on that and added “But then you don’t think Methodists are Christians, do you?”). My former teacher’s final observation was that Obama isn’t even an American:
“He’s a Muslim!”
As a reminder, this is the woman who taught me seventh grade social studies, civics, American history. Mrs. Selmon hasn’t taught school in over thirty years, but I wonder what other damage she did during that time and how many of her students remember her words. How many of them still teach today, and what are they filling Alabama’s schoolchildren with? Wallace is dead – long live the King?
At the end of their conversation, Mrs. Selmon said to my mother, “Well, we can still be friends,” but as my mother remarked to me in the retelling, “That woman and I were never friends.”
I wonder: if they had been, what would that have looked or sounded like?
If I’ve learned anything since enough Americans got together to elect Donald Trump, it’s that being friends only with those who think like you politically is the road to sterility, to the wasteland, the anti-Bethlehem.
I did not vote third party in this election. I worried beforehand that any proliferation of third parties would potentially swing the election, as it did in 1968. But Gary Johnson and Jill Stein were only one factor in the election of Donald Trump. So is the rise of the white nationalist movement and those who shout “sand nigger” from the luxury of their white Suburbans. As Jon Stewart reminds us, this is the same country now, two weeks after the election, as it was two weeks before it. America hasn’t changed so much, and you can choose to see that as comforting or frightening, depending on your skin color, your gender, your religious beliefs, or your spot on the economic ladder.
I think I should have voted for Humphrey in that mock election back in seventh grade. I did vote for Hillary and am not sorry. I accept that she didn’t win and that Donald Trump did. However, it does bother me that people like Matthew M. Heimbach, “co-founder of the Traditionalist Youth Network, a white nationalist group” embrace Trump. As Jonathan Mahler and Julie Turkewitz report in the New York Times, Heimbach “shoved a young black woman at a Trump rally in Louisville, KY,” last spring. “‘Trump has shown that our message is healthy, normal, and organic,’” he says. Though Heimbach doesn’t believe Trump is a white nationalist, he and others are thankful to Trump for “championing ideas they support.”
We are usually more than the labels attached to us, and more than the ones we own or proclaim: Democrat, Republican, Baptist, Protestant, Governor, President, Alt-Right, or Liberal Elitist. But sometimes we’re less: Klansman, White Nationalist.
Among the many things my wife is, I can attest that she is a regular actor in the great American enterprise of participatory democracy. She has voted in every national and local election since 1992. She is also a licensed psychotherapist and has counseled thousands of clients over the past thirty years: married couples in crisis; young women with eating disorders; men and women transitioning; and individuals on the edge of ending their lives.
My wife is also an immigrant. Yes, she is. In 1985, two old friends of mine referred to her as a “sand nigger.” My wife and I had been married less than a year. She had been living in “our country” since she escaped the wrath of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, already had her green card, and in four more years would obtain her full American citizenship.
That incident stung for a long time, and recently, it began to sting again.
On the morning after the election, at 7 a.m. to be exact, our daughter called us, more worried than I think I’ve ever heard her:
“What’s going to happen? Are they going to send Mom and the other Persians out of the country?”
“No,” I assured her. “We’re better than that.”
And I do have hope – no, I have faith – that, after all these elections, all this name-calling, all these evolving years, it’s true.
like this essay? why not let Terry know with a buck? click here to donate.