By GREG MARKLEY
By spring 1972, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy were four years in the past. JFK’s murder was nine years back. So as I edged to my birthday in May, I was pleased that the 1972 election did not have another national tragedy. Then came May 15 and news of the wounding of Alabama Gov. George Corley Wallace in Laurel, Maryland.
At age 15, I had never been to Alabama so knew Wallace mostly from his presidential campaign. His racism repulsed me, but when he was shot I rooted for him. Candidates should not be shot for their beliefs, but instead defeated. Even a reprehensible politician like Wallace should be part of the “marketplace of ideas.” Hopefully, people will reject their views and they will leave the stage.
“In a very real sense, the event that took place a half-century ago resulted in two distinctly different George Wallaces — the one who lives pre-shooting and the other post,” wrote George Wallace Jr., his son, in a commentary published in many newspapers on the anniversary date.
He continued: “Perhaps the change was best illustrated one night when we watched television together as I sat beside his bed. Knowing he had twice won a Golden Gloves championship as an amateur, been captain of the University of Alabama boxing team and loved his sport his entire life, I turned on a prizefight between two ranked contenders. ‘Son, I don’t like to watch two people hurt each other,’ he said while asking me to change the channel.”
The shooting happened May 15, at around 4 p.m. at Laurel Shopping Center in Laurel, Maryland. Loner Arthur Bremer shot at Wallace’s abdomen with a .38 revolver. Wallace was hit four times, but he fought for life at a hospital and survived. He was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Three others were shot, but they too recovered.
Radio and TV broadcasters suggested that the 52-year-old Alabama governor survived based on his earlier athleticism and his determined outlook. Being at an outdoor mall is a wise idea for politicians when they don’t have many followers with them. Wallace was surrounded by maybe 1,000 people, but some were only at the mall by happenstance. Who would know?
“Until now, Gov. Wallace was riding a new crest of influence in his maverick political career,” wrote William Greider of The Washington Post. “He had won three presidential primaries so far in 1972, was favored to win today in Maryland and Michigan, and is expected to have at least 10% of all delegates at the Democratic National Convention in July.”
When Wallace ran for a second successive term in 1974, the questions were: Would constituents who liked his openly racist style still support him? How many African American votes can he earn? Would voters not feel he could do the job, with his paralysis? Were there new politicians that could upset Wallace’s plans? Is there still such a thing as a “sympathy vote” for a politician who has been shot and suffers residual pain daily?
Well, Gov. Wallace would remain Gov. Wallace. I don’t have the totals for blacks supporting Wallace, but in a five-candidate Democratic Primary he received 65%. He beat his closest competitor by more than double. In the general election, Wallace beat his GOP opponent, 83% to 15%.
In 1982, he gained 42% in the Democratic Primary, and almost lost the nomination to lieutenant governor George McMillan in the runoff. In November, he defeated Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmar, 58% to 39%. Amazingly, this former segregationist captured more than 90% of the black vote. His renouncing of a negative racial approach in 1979 was widely publicized.
I once worked for a guy who said one day: “Tomorrow is a wonderful day that I recall having with my wife.” I said, “Oh, good. Your wedding anniversary?” No. “Is it your wife’s birthday?” No, he said. “It’s my divorce anniversary. That’s special for me. I always celebrate the day it was finalized!”
May 15, 1972. The day of an attempted assassination of George Wallace was one he did not want to remember. It was a harsh event, like the final legal separation of my friend, above. For history’s sake, good and bad sides must be available for people to judge themselves about this complex man and his times.
Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 13 years. email@example.com .