Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Selma and the Legacy of George Wallace

The recently released film Selma includes a scene between President Lyndon Johnson and Alabama governor George Wallace. Wallace's son has penned a passionate defense, believing that the film slanders his late father. Former Democratic U.S. Representative Artur Davis, who switched allegiance to the Republican Party a few years back, has responded with his own essay.

The irony of George Wallace is that he is still one of the most well-known Alabamians in American history. He was arguably one of the strongest, most productive governors in state history. At a time when candidates for Alabama's highest elective office campaign on single-issue platforms and accomplish only modest reforms, Wallace was highly productive. It's a shame that all of his charisma was spent mostly on his self-styled flair for theatrics.

It is true that Wallace used segregationist and racist rhetoric to stir the pot for his own benefit. As for whether he was a racist or not is unclear. Many people outside the state are unaware that Wallace won a final term in office with solid African-American support. He apologized to black leaders and black people directly, having escaped assassin's bullets, but still paralyzed from the waist down. They believed him, even when his racial policies were decidedly uneven when once again in office.

Davis writes,

Of course the redemptive years ought to count in evaluating Wallace's record (they would count for more if they had been more substance than rhetoric, if Wallace's last term as governor, secured with black votes, had actually attacked poverty in the Black Belt, or revamped a state tax structure that drains poor people).

Alabama as a state still suffers from Wallace's legacy and his looming shadow. It has dealt with its own internal identity crisis, particularly the perpetual struggle between rural leadership and city leadership. It is an issue that faces many states, but he nonetheless served as the public face of Alabama's defiantly proud poor whites. After all, Wallace was a small town boy from Clio, little more than a whistle stop with barely 1,000 residents at the time of his upbringing.

Wallace could be punitive towards those who opposed him at the ballot box. His patronage system reflected this fact. Alabama's largest city of Birmingham, where opposition to Wallace had been strong, was quite deliberately the very last place where interstate highways were built. He boosted the local economies of smaller towns by building an elaborate system of junior colleges, which exist to this day. Had he not been consumed with being the public face of resistance to integration, he might have held an esteemed place in Alabama history.

But, as we know, this was not the path George Wallace chose. Tearful confession from a wheelchair aside, Wallace will be known for defiance, his head tilted back at a podium, chin jutting pridefully upwards towards the sky. It is an image I studied in school, a familiar story my parents and other older adults discussed among themselves from time to time.

As Davis concludes,

It is the sneer of a man who lived for power in his time, who could have cared less about the future because there were no votes there, and whose neglect of his state's conditions still haunts it. 
Whatever the state of his soul when he died, his actions suggested that this George Wallace was the real one. And the cruelty of his legacy lives on, and warps Alabama to this day. 

I have to admit I was not much of a fan of Selma. It was too stylized, too Hollywood for my liking. Though well-intentioned, I would have preferred a grittier rendition and a smarter screenplay. As is true with many Southerners, I prefer casting natives whose Southern accents are not the product of a vocal coach. The story needs to be told, yes, but not like this.

The South has a distressingly repetitive inclination to be the Patron Saint of Lost Causes. Whether we're discussing Jefferson Davis or George Wallace, the result is always the same. Selma, the film, forgets a very crucial aspect that stylized studio films often do. I do not think the definitive rendition has yet been committed to celluloid.

As noted Southern historian C. Vann Woodword wrote about Reconstruction, "It is undoubtedly a period full of rich and tragic and meaningful history, a period that should be studiously searched for its meanings, a period that has many meanings yet to yield.  But I seriously doubt that it will ever serve satisfactorily as a Golden Age--for anybody. There is too much irony mixed in with the tragedy."

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