Racism Coming and Going: The Cases of Sen. Tom Watson and Gov. George Wallace

For good or ill, politicians are politicians.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


A good way to illustrate the importance of voting rights is to examine the behavior of actual politicians: Most of them will work hard to gain the goodwill of their constituents. Non-voters, on the other hand, usually get less attention—except, as in the case of children, when actual voters have very strong desire to benefit them.

I'm sure none of that comes as a shock to you, but I think I have a nice historical illustration of it, so I figured it would be good for weekend reading. This is from my Commissioner Statement in the Report on Minority Voting Rights Access released by the Commission on Civil Rights last week (footnotes omitted):

Consider the case of Senator Thomas E. Watson of Georgia (1856-1922), whose political (and journalism) career spanned many decades, beginning prior to the disfranchisement movement in the South and concluding after disfranchisement was a fait accompli. The Tom Watson of the 1880s was a passionate fusion populist, seeking to unite poor whites and poor African Americans in order to gain what he saw as their fair share of the South's then-meager resources. For reasons beyond Watson's control, within a few years, African Americans had been effectively disfranchised in Georgia. Attempting to appeal to the African-American vote was therefore no longer a useful strategy for an ambitious office seeker like Watson. At that point, he began to voice his approval of disfranchisement. By the 1910s and 1920s, Watson had morphed into one of the most virulent racists one could ever encounter. Referring to "the Negro," he remarked, "In the South, we have to lynch him occasionally, and flog him, now and then, to keep him from blaspheming the Almighty, by his conduct, on account of his smell and his color."

Compare Watson's career with that of Alabama Governor George Corley Wallace (1919-1998). Wallace straddled the other end of the history of African-American disfranchisement. After being elected governor for the first time, he said the following in his January 14, 1963 inaugural address:

"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, segregation forever."

But that was before the success of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In just a few short years, African-American voter registration had skyrocketed in Alabama. By the 1970s, he was asking forgiveness for his past sins. And, in a remarkable turn of events, he largely received it. He was re-elected to a third term as governor in 1982 with a huge share (90%) of African-American votes.

Colman McCarthy was among those who thought Wallace's transformation to be sincere. He wrote in 1995:

"In the annals of religious and political conversions, few shiftings were as unlikely as George Wallace's. In Montgomery, Ala., last week, the once irrepressible governor – now 75, infirm, pain-wracked and in a wheelchair since his 1972 shooting – held hands with black southerners and sang 'We Shall Overcome.'"

"What Wallace overcame is his past hatred that made him both the symbol and enforcer of anti-black racism in the 1960s. On March 10, Wallace went to St. Jude's church to be with some 200 others marking the 30th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march."

"It was a reaching-out moment of reconciliation, of Wallace's asking for – and receiving – forgiveness. In a statement read for him – he was too ill to speak – Wallace told those in the crowd who had marched 30 years ago: 'Much has transpired since those days. A great deal has been lost and a great deal gained, and here we are. My message to you today is, welcome to Montgomery. May your message be heard. May your lessons never be forgotten.'"

"In gracious and spiritual words, Joseph Lowery, a leader in the original march and now the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, thanked the former separatist 'for coming out of your sickness to meet us. You are a different George Wallace today. We both serve a God who can make the desert bloom. We ask God's blessing on you.'"

McCarthy wrote that Wallace "was using his waning political power to bond with those he once scorned." And maybe he was right about Wallace's sincerity. But whether Wallace was sincere or insincere, there is a simpler point: In a reasonably well-functioning democratic republic, successful politicians spend a lot of time trying to please voters; they seldom spend as much time trying to please non-voters. In Wallace's final term as governor, he appointed more than 160 blacks to state governing boards. He worked to double the number of black voter registrars in Alabama's 67 counties and hired African Americans as staff members. In that sense at least, he was a changed man.

The lesson? Well … I am sure you get the basic idea.