Gov. Kay Ivey is Alabama’s second female governor. Lurleen Wallace was the first. Ironically, Ivey’s idol and impetus for striving to be governor was Wallace. Ivey’s first involvement in state politics was as a campaign worker for Lurleen’s 1966 race for governor when Ivey was a student at Auburn.
It was 55 years ago in May 1968 that our first female governor, Lurleen, passed away. She was a genuinely humble person. Lurleen was very popular. The state fell in love with her. She was not only beloved, she was also a good governor for the 18 months she served before she succumbed to cancer.
Her husband, George Wallace, was first elected governor in 1962. He had ridden the race issue to the governorship and had made segregation the hallmark issue of his first four years. He had become the paramount king of segregation in the nation. He was very popular. However, he was forbidden by the Alabama Constitution from seeking a second, consecutive term. At that time, the governor could not succeed himself.
The idea of George running his wife Lurleen as his proxy had been tossed out by a few of his cronies as a joke. After a few weeks, the idea grew on George. He made calls around the state and began to realize that dog might hunt.
George and Lurleen met when he was a 22-year-old law student at the University of Alabama. He met her at a dime store in Tuscaloosa, where she was a 16-year-old clerk. She was born and raised in Northport. They soon thereafter got married.
George’s life and devotion was to politics and being governor of Alabama. Lurleen was content to be a behind-the-scenes mother. George’s passion was politics. Lurleen’s passion was being a mother and going fishing.
Lurleen was a genuinely sweet lady. Her humble background as a dime store clerk in Northport endeared her to Alabamians. She was gracious and sincere, and people fell in love with her. Lurleen had been diagnosed with cancer two years prior to the 1966 election. Although it seemed to be in remission, her health was not excellent. The campaigning was a challenge to her. She did not cherish the spotlight like George. Instead, she preferred her quiet time. She had been mother and father to four children.
However, after Lurleen agreed to run, it seemed to grow on her. She was a quick study. She got better day after day. As the crowds grew, you could feel the momentum and surge in popularity. She seemed to thrill to it.
Lurleen’s landslide victory in May of 1966 was astonishing. She set records for votes, some of which still stand today. She defeated nine male opponents without a runoff. Left in the carnage was an illustrious field of proven veteran political men. Included in the field she demolished were sitting Alabama Attorney General Richmond Flowers, Jasper Congressman Carl Elliott, State Sen. Bob Gilchrist, Dothan businessman Charles Woods, two former governors — John Patterson and Big Jim Folsom — popular state Agriculture Commissioner A.W. Todd and, of course, Shorty Price. She then went on to trounce the most popular Republican in the state, Republican Congressman Jim Martin, by a two-to-one margin.
Lurleen became governor in January 1967. She warmed to the job and made a very good governor. She let George know that she was governor. However, she lived less than two years after she took office. Soon after her inauguration, she visited the state’s mental hospital in her native Tuscaloosa County. She was so moved by the deplorable conditions that she made it her mission to improve the mental health facilities in the state. She gave one of the most moving speeches ever delivered before a legislature that resulted in passage of a major bond issue to support mental health.
Lurleen was also instrumental in the creation of a major cancer center at UAB. It came to pass after her death.
She became beloved by Alabamians. She showed amazing grace and courage as she battled against cancer. When she died, the outpouring of sympathy from the people of the state was unparalleled. Thousands of Alabamians filed by her casket in the Capitol Rotunda. Schools let out and school children came to Montgomery from all over the state to pay their respects for our Lady Governor.
See you next week.
Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Flowers may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.