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Mon January 14, 2013
'Radio Diaries'

'Segregation Forever': A Fiery Pledge Forgiven, But Not Forgotten

Originally published on Mon January 14, 2013 8:17 pm

It was just a single line in a speech given 50 years ago today. But that one phrase, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever," is remembered as one of the most vehement rallying cries against racial equality in American history.

The year was 1963. Civil rights activists were fighting for equal access to schools and the voting booth, and the federal government was preparing to intervene in many Southern states.

And on Jan. 14, in Montgomery, Ala., newly elected Gov. George Wallace, a Democrat, stepped up to a podium to deliver his inaugural address.

Historian Dan Carter, who wrote The Politics of Rage, a biography of George Wallace, recalls how the streets of Montgomery were packed the day of Wallace's inauguration. His followers from across the state crowded around the platform, Carter says, "many of them wearing these white flowers, which were meant to symbolize their commitment to white supremacy."

James L. Poe Jr., a former student activist and then-president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, says blacks were not invited to attend the event.

"It was open to the public, anyone in the public," he says. "But we were not the public."

A Fiery Speech, Heard Across The Nation

All of the major news networks covered Wallace's inaugural address on national television that day. And Wallace, Carter says, decided to "milk that for everything that he can."

The late Wayne Greenhaw, a newspaper reporter in Montgomery at the time, made a similar observation. "He was putting on a show. He marched back and forth, shook his fist," Greenhaw recalled shortly before his death in 2011. "He was promising that he would stand alone for the Southern cause and the cause of the white people."

Wallace's speech — and its delivery — was "vehement ... mean spirited ... hateful. It's like a rattlesnake was hissing it, almost," Greenhaw said.

"Let us send this message back to Washington, via the representatives who are here with us today," Wallace told the crowd. "From this day, we are standing up, and the heel of tyranny does not fit the neck of an upright man.

"Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us, and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South," Wallace declared from the podium. "In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw a line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever."

Poe, the former NAACP chapter president, says he and his colleagues were taken aback. "To hear the governor of a state get up and make the kind of comments that you would expect that someone in the back alley, with their sheets on and burning crosses would make — that was the thing that really caught us."

'Words Can Be Dangerous'

Poe says Wallace was determined to continue to exercise states' rights — and to continue to segregate — "no matter what the Supreme Court said in Brown v. Board of Education, no matter what the federal government [was] saying."

Reflecting on his response to the speech at the time, Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, originally from Alabama, says he took Wallace's words personally. "My governor, this elected official, was saying in effect, you are not welcome, you are not welcome," Lewis says.

"Words can be very powerful. Words can be dangerous," Lewis says. "Gov. Wallace never pulled a trigger. He never fired a gun. But in his speech, he created the environment for others to pull the trigger, in the days, the weeks and months to come."

Indeed, violence quickly followed Wallace's inauguration, says Poe. "We began to feel the sting of the speech. People night-riding and burning crosses. The police beat down people and ran over them with horses, put tear gas on them."

And later that year, four girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama.

"This was a very a difficult time in the American South," Lewis says.

"Segregation now, segregation forever" quickly became Wallace's symbol, Greenhaw recalled. "Before Wallace made that speech, the editorial page editor of the Montgomery Advertiser tried to get Wallace to take out that part" of the speech. "And Wallace said, 'Without that, it won't stand up.'

"Much later in life, he probably wished he had taken it out," Greenhaw said.

'He Wanted People To Forgive Him'

While George Wallace was elected Alabama's governor three more times and made four runs for president, he would never hold national office. Carter says Wallace's inaugural address ensured he could never become president.

"Most Americans — what they know about George Wallace is, 'Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,' " Carter says. "That line is so iconic, so important. And George Wallace was on the wrong side of history."

Wallace himself became a victim of violence on May 15, 1972, while campaigning for president in Maryland. He was shot five times as he stepped out from behind a bulletproof podium. One of the bullets badly damaged his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed.

"One has to wonder if, sitting in that wheelchair, maybe he had a chance to contemplate," Poe says of Wallace's years after the shooting.

Some years later, after Lewis had been elected to Congress, he heard from Wallace. "He said, 'John Lewis, will you come by and talk with me?'

"And I remember the occasion so well," Lewis says. "It was like someone confessing to their priest or to a minister. He wanted people to forgive him. He said to me, 'I never hated anybody; I never hated any black people.'

"He said, 'Mr. Lewis, I'm sorry.' And I said, 'Well, governor, I accept your apology.' "

Poe was also able to reach the same conclusion. "Being the type of person I am, out of my heart and soul, I can forgive George Wallace. Yes. Heaven's sakes, I forgive him," Poe says. "But forget? No. Never."

Even today, Lewis says he often reflects on the governor's speech.

"Does it hurt me? No," Lewis says. "In the end, I think George Wallace was one of the signs on this long journey towards the creation of a better America, toward the creation of a more perfect union. It was just one of the stumbling blocks along the way."

In his later years, Wallace reached out to civil rights activists and appeared in black churches to ask forgiveness. In his last election as governor of Alabama, in 1982, he won with more than 90 percent of the black vote. Wallace died in September 1998.

Produced for All Things Considered by Samara Freemark and Joe Richman of Radio Diaries with help from Ben Shapiro. Edited by Deborah George.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

"Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" - it was just a single line in a speech given 50 years ago today. But it's remembered as one of the most vehement rallying cries against racial equality, in American history. The year was 1963. Civil rights activists were fighting for equal access to schools and the voting booth, and the federal government was preparing to intervene in many Southern states. In Montgomery, Alabama, newly elected Gov. George Wallace stepped to the podium to deliver his inaugural address. Producers Samara Freemark and Joe Richman, of Radio Dairies, have this audio history.

WAYNE GREENHAW: My name is Wayne Greenhaw. I was a newspaper reporter in Montgomery, Alabama, back in the 1960s.

DR. JAMES V. POE JR.: I was a student activist, and my name is Dr. James V. Poe Jr.

DAN CARTER: My name is Dan Carter. I wrote a biography of George Wallace.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: My name is John Lewis. I'm a member of the House of Representatives. And I remember the speech very well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

(APPLAUSE)

GOV. GEORGE WALLACE: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. This - this is the inaugurate - day of my inauguration as governor of the state of Alabama...

CARTER: George Wallace was inaugurated on the steps of the Capitol. The streets were packed; all his followers - from all over the state - crowding around the platform; and many of them wearing these white flowers, which were meant to symbolize their commitment to white supremacy.

LEWIS: Blacks were not invited to attend. It was open to the public, anyone in the public; but we were not the public.

CARTER: All of the major networks cover his inaugural address on national television. And that really catapulted him onto the national scene. So he proceeds to milk that, for everything that he can.

WALLACE: Let us send this message back to Washington by our representatives who are here with us today; that from this day we are standing up, and the heel of tyranny does not fit the neck of an upright man.

GREENHAW: He was putting on a show. He marched back and forth; shook his fist. He was promising that he was going to stand alone for the Southern cause, the cause of the white people.

WALLACE: That we, not the insipid black...

GREENHAW: It's vehement. It's mean-spirited. It's hateful. But how he said it was magnificent.

WALLACE: But if we amalgamate into the one unit, as advocated by the communist philosophers, then the enrichment of our lives, the freedom of our development is gone forever. We become, therefore, a mongrel unit of one, under a single...

CARTER: For the white Southerners who were standing out there in that freezing cold and stomping their feet, finally there was somebody who was saying what they felt; who was expressing their deepest fears about what was going to happen.

WALLACE: We can no longer hide our head...

CARTER: They wanted that anger; they wanted somebody to express it. And Wallace was the one that did it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

POE: He said no matter what the Supreme Court said in Brown v. the Board of Education, no matter what the federal government is saying, we will continue to exercise state's rights. And we will continue to segregate.

WALLACE: Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us, and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South...

LEWIS: I took it very personal. My governor - this elected official - was saying, in effect, you are not welcome. You are not welcome.

WALLACE: In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust, and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.

(CHEERS, APPLAUSE)

LEWIS: Words can be very powerful. Words can be dangerous. Governor Wallace never pulled a trigger. He never fired a gun. But in his speech, he created the environment for others to pull the trigger in the days, the weeks and months to come.

POE: We began to feel the sting of the speech - people night-riding and burning crosses; the police beat down people and ran over them with horses, put tear gas on them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This march will not continue.

LEWIS: And later during this same year, we witnessed the bombing of a church, where four little girls were killed on a Sunday morning. This was a very difficult and dark time in the American South.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Let's win, win, win, win, Wallace. And help him pave the way...

GREENHAW: Segregation now, segregation forever became Wallace's symbol. Before Wallace made that speech, the editorial page editor of the Montgomery Advertiser tried to get Wallace to take out that part. Much later in life, he probably wished he had taken it out.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Let's win, win, win, win...

CARTER: George Wallace was elected governor in the next election - and would continue to be, over much of his lifetime. He ran for president four times, and he did very well. Whether it was racial backlash or hostility to the national government, the social issues, no one played it better than Wallace did. But he would never hold national political office.

Most Americans, what they know about George Wallace is, "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." That line is so iconic, so important. And George Wallace was on the wrong side of history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS, SCREAMS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Stand back, ladies and gentlemen. Get out of the way! Move!

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #1: George Wallace was shot down this afternoon as he campaigned in Maryland, not far from Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #2: The 52-year-old Wallace had just finished talking to a crowd at a shopping center, and had stepped from behind a bulletproof podium when the shots rang out.

CARTER: In May of 1972, George Wallace is shot five times. His spinal cord was badly damaged by one of the bullets, and he's paralyzed.

POE: One has to wonder if, sitting in that wheelchair, maybe he had a chance to contemplate.

LEWIS: A few short years later, after I got to Congress, Gov. Wallace heard that I was going to be in Alabama. He said, John Lewis, will you come by, talk with me? And I remember the occasion so well. It was like someone confessing to their priest, or to a minister. He wanted people to forgive him. He said, I never hated anybody. I never hated any black people. He said, Mr. Lewis, I'm sorry. And I said, well, Governor, I accept your apology.

POE: Being the type of person I am, out of my heart, out of my soul, I can forgive George Wallace. Yes. Heaven's sakes, I forgive him. But forget? No. Never. Never.

WALLACE: I draw the line in the dust, and toss the gauntlet...

LEWIS: I tell you, since then, I often think about what Gov. Wallace said in that speech.

WALLACE: ...segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.

LEWIS: Does it hurt me? No. In the end, I think George Wallace was one of the signs on this long journey toward the creation of a better America; toward the creation of a more perfect union. It was just one of the stumbling blocks along the way.

CORNISH: In his later years, George Wallace reached out to civil rights activists and appeared in black churches, to ask forgiveness. In his last election as governor of Alabama, in 1982, he won with more than 90 percent of the black vote.

Our story was produced by Samara Freemark and Joe Richman, of Radio Dairies; with help from Ben Shapiro, and edited by Deborah George. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.