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Free Citizen

This writer espouses individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

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Location: Jackson, Mississippi, United States

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Alabama's 1966 Race for Governor

George Wallace, an ally of two-time Governor Jim Folsom Sr., first ran for chief executive of Alabama in 1958 as a racial moderate with NAACP backing. Losing the Democratic runoff to attorney general John Patterson, Wallace swore, "I'll never be out-segged again!"

Wallace campaigned in 1962 as a staunch segregationist with support from the Ku Klux Klan. Ex-Governor Folsom, appearing drunk on live TV the night before the primary, clucked like a chicken and forgot the name of one of his children. He barely missed making the runoff, which Wallace won.

Ineligible to succeed himself, Wallace in 1966 ran his wife Lurleen as a stand-in. I recalled that she won the crowded Democratic primary without a runoff, but in reviewing the results, I was amazed to learn that Folsom and Patterson combined only got 6.2 percent of the vote.

James Martin, who had nearly beaten longtime Democratic U. S. senator Lister Hill in 1962, was the 1966 Republican nominee for governor. Martin gave up the U. S. House seat that he had won in 1964, and he lost badly to Mrs. Wallace.

I asked my friend Darcy Richardson, author of six books on politics, to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the 1966 campaign, which he graciously agreed to do. His excellent account is below. ~~ SR

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George Wallace, of course, was scared to death of Ryan DeGraffenried's candidacy in the months leading up to the 1966 gubernatorial primary. DeGraffenried had denounced Wallace as a "loud-mouthed demagogue" during the 1962 primary while edging out "Kissin' Jim" Folsom to make the runoff. He was probably the one political figure in Alabama that Wallace feared the most.

Wallace failed in trying to convince the Alabama legislature to pass a constitutional amendment allowing him to run for a second consecutive term and knew that his wife would probably go down to defeat in a contest against the young and handsome state senator from Tuscaloosa. One member of the Wallace family later remarked that had DeGraffenried lived, "it's highly possible George would not have run Lurleen" that year. At the time, polls showed that DeGraffenried would win without a runoff. His tragic death in February, of course, changed all of that, making Lurleen the instant favorite and creating a free-for-all of sorts among rival Democrats, each hoping to force Wallace's 39-year-old wife into a runoff.

Folsom, who had briefly entered the race for the 1948 Democratic presidential nomination against incumbent Harry Truman and later flirted with the idea of supporting the Progressive Party's Henry A. Wallace, and Patterson, longing for a political comeback, both waged active campaigns during the 1966 primary. Patterson stalled at the starting gate, unable to gain any traction in the contest because most of the state's large segregationist population — those whom the ex-governor had always counted on — had already gravitated to the Wallaces, while the 6'8", 57-year-old Folsom, who had made a fool of himself on the eve of the 1962 primary when he appeared drunk on statewide television, was boxed in by three other moderates, each believed to have a much better chance of making the runoff than the former governor.

Silver-haired attorney general Richmond Flowers, a moderate on race issues who made a direct appeal to the state's African-American voters — numbering about 230,000 at the time — was probably regarded as Lurleen's most formidable challenger in the primary, but there was also spirited competition from former eight-term congressman Carl Elliott of northern Alabama, a liberal on racial issues who was later honored with the first Profile in Courage Award from the Kennedy Library Foundation — presented to him, incidentally, by the late Ted Kennedy in 1990 — and from state Senator Bob Gilchrist, an ally of longtime U.S. senator John J. Sparkman who had worked vigorously to block Wallace's succession amendment in the legislature.

Patterson and Folsom, the latter of whom was waging the second of six unsuccessful comebacks — the last occurring in 1982 when he was virtually penniless, in failing health, and legally blind — were never really factors in the 1966 primary. The two ex-governors were naturally disappointed by their poor showings. "There wasn't any way in the world of beating her," lamented Patterson. "You had old women, eighty, ninety years old, going and registering to vote that never voted in their life. Just so they could vote for her." Folsom agreed. "It was like a damned blitzkrieg," he complained.

Eyeing a presidential candidacy in which he promised to "shake the eye-teeth of the liberals in this country" while turning the two-party establishment on its head, George C. Wallace arguably campaigned harder that year than any of the ten candidates whose names appeared on the Democratic primary ballot that spring. After all, he had the most to lose.

Nobody could fire up a crowd like old George. In one campaign appearance after another, the fiery pugilist-turned-politician bounced across the stage, passionately defending the working folks of Alabama and particularly his devoted wife and mother of his four children — a former dime-store clerk and daughter of a shipyard worker — against the tirades and ridicule of the national media, which, astoundingly, covered Lurleen's campaign as closely as a hotly-contested presidential race.

Wallace knew that he had taken a huge gamble by running his wife for governor that year, but he succeeded — something that probably wouldn't have happened had the small blue-and-gray Cessna airplane carrying front-runner Ryan DeGraffenried to a speaking engagement in nearby Gadsden not been caught in a gale-force wind, slamming the plane into Lookout Mountain in early February, killing the popular Tuscaloosa lawmaker and his pilot instantly. Had DeGraffenried lived, there's every possibility that Wallace would not have been a third-party candidate for president in 1968.

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Click here for information on Darcy's books.

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