Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Backlash: George Wallace And The Other Protest Movement of the 1960s

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I describe the angry white reaction to civil rights reform and urban uprising in the 1960s and how these resentments fueled the presidential campaigns of segregationist George Wallace of Alabama.

It was to the rising conservative wing of the Republican Party, however, that Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon tied his fate in 1968. The urban riots, beginning with the Watts uprising in 1965, further energized the right wing. Supreme Court decisions prohibiting school-mandated and directed prayer, and loosening pornography laws, politicized religious conservatives who argued the government was at war with Judeo-Christian values.

When Time magazine featured the question, “Is God Dead?” on its cover on April 8, 1966, many evangelical Christians added the media to its list of supposedly dangerous, atheist forces in America. The cover story provoked about 3,500 letters to the editor, a record for responses to one article. Many echoed the sentiments of one reader who wrote the editors, “Time’s story is biased, pro-atheist, and pro-Communist, shocking and entirely un-American.”

The right-wing backlash sometimes turned violent. The year 1966 saw the pro-war song “The Ballad of the Green Berets” at number 1 on the Billboard Magazine chart of Top 40 bestselling records for five weeks. As historian Rick Perlstein observed, in the same year, in San Diego, someone broke a window and threw a burning oil rag into the office of a San Diego civil rights organization. In Pacific Palisades, California, a high school principal dispatched the football team to beat up a group of 50 students protesting the school dress code who carried signs that read “THERE IS NO SCIENTIFIC PROOF THAT LONG HAIR INHIBITS LEARNING.” In Richmond, Virginia, two pacifists passed out literature criticizing the American war in Vietnam. Assailants shot them 17 times in the back.


Nixon found political gold in tapping white anger against African Americans. As part of his comeback plans the former vice president already implemented what would come to be known as the “Southern Strategy” during his presidential administration. Nixon watched with intense interest and fear the career of segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who had performed surprisingly well in Northern Democratic primaries in 1964. Politicians like Wallace, Nixon and former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan perceived the growing white backlash in the United States, even in places as far from the South as California, where 65 percent of voters in 1964 approved Proposition 14, a measure that overturned a previously passed fair-housing law prohibiting home sellers from discriminating against racial minorities.

As the 1968 presidential season dawned, Wallace sought out disaffected whites across the country as he launched the American Independent Party, a third-party vehicle for his presidential ambitions. A Detroit newspaper columnist derided Wallace’s constituency, which included Klansman and Neo-Nazis, as “kooks.” Wallace scoffed. “The other side’s got more kooks than we do,” he insisted, adding, “kooks got a right to vote too.”

Wallace successfully tapped into a culture, shaped by Joe McCarthy-era claims of secret communist plots to take over America (ideas still promoted by J. Edgar Hoover) and doubts over the official conclusions regarding the JFK assassination, increasingly attuned to conspiracy theories. The race riots that had wracked the country, Wallace claimed, were the product of a sinister plan to destroy America launched by “pointy-headed” bureaucrats in Washington who were taking their orders directly from communist leader Fidel Castro in Cuba.

The more extreme Wallace sounded, according to biographer Dan Carter, the larger and more enthusiastic his audiences. Working under stringent ballot access laws authored by Republican and Democratic lawmakers to block third-party access to the ballot, Wallace supporters collected 2.7 million signatures to get the American Independent Party on the ballot in Ohio. This success was repeated across the country.

Campaigning outside his native state, Wallace had to mask his appeals to anti-black resentment. He spoke instead in racial code, of lazy people on welfare, and the collapse of law and order. “You people work hard,” he told a white, blue-collar California audience, “you save your money, you teach your children to respect the law.” Yet, Wallace said, when someone burns down a city and murders someone, “ ‘pseudo-intellectuals’ explain it away by saying the killer didn’t get any watermelon to eat when he was 10 years old. “ Furthermore, Wallace claimed, “the Supreme Court is fixing it so you can’t do anything about people who set cities on fire.”

Wallace also included leftist professors, immoral Hollywood movies and “long-haired hippies” in his list of “sinister forces destroying America.” While the Northeast press derided Wallace for his simple-minded and often crude rhetoric, voters found the renegade candidate refreshingly blunt. “You don’t have to worry about figuring out where he stands,” a steelworker in Youngstown, Ohio, told one reporter. “He tells it like it really is.”

Few expected that Wallace could get on the ballot in California, but on January 2, 1968, Wallace announced that he had collected the required 100,000 signatures. A Gallup Poll at the time showed 11 percent of California voters supporting Wallace for president. By April, Wallace addressed cheering crowds in the largest Texas cities, in Houston, San Antonio, Lubbock and beyond. Near Dallas, a Wallace speech drew 15,000, who endured a driving rainstorm while sitting in a high school football stadium. The warmup speaker, Carter notes, described Wallace as “America’s divinely appointed savior.”

Arch-conservative Western movie star John Wayne reportedly sent the campaign a total of $30,000, the last check supposedly inscribed, “Sock it to ’em, George.” Dallas billionaire Bunker Hunt (son of the legendarily eccentric, radically right-wing and bigamist Texas oilman H.L. Hunt) provided Wallace up to $300,000. In the end, the Alabama politician’s amateurish campaign raked in around $9 million in contributions, enough to make his third-party bid competitive. More than 80 percent of Wallace campaign contributions, however, came from small donors who sent $50 or less. Wallace’s name would be on the ballot in all 50 states that November.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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