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

For good or ill, politicians are politicians.


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.

NEXT: Jeffrey Rosen on "Madison's Nightmare"

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  1. The lesson?

    Politicians will pander to voters, principles be damned.

  2. I often wondered how much of Wallace’s transformation was due to being stuck in a wheelchair and suddenly noticing how much irrational discrimination sucks, how it really sucks to be treated differently for reasons beyond your control. In the particular case of being in a wheelchair in 1972, the discrimination was likely for disgust and pity for being weak and crippled rather than for skin color, but the effect might have been the same.

    1. I suspect his late life transformation was due to the fact that we would no longer be governor if he continued on as he had. Wallace loved power and didn’t appear to care any more about hurting people than helping them. Really, a political sociopath.

      But I repeat myself.

  3. This leaves out an earlier part of Wallace’s career – his 1958 campaign for governor.

    Alabama elections at the time were a one-party Democratic affair. There was a primary, which typically attracted a large field, and then a runoff between the top two finishers. Wallace faced John Patterson in the runoff, and lost. Here is Wikipedia’s report:

    Wallace’s main opponent was state attorney general John Malcolm Patterson, who ran with the support of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization Wallace had spoken against. Wallace was endorsed by the NAACP. Wallace lost the nomination by over 34,400 votes.

    After the election, aide Seymore Trammell recalled Wallace saying, “Seymore, you know why I lost that governor’s race? … I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again.”

    In the wake of his defeat, Wallace adopted a hard-line segregationist stance and used this stand to court the white vote in the next gubernatorial election in 1962. When a supporter asked why he started using racist messages, Wallace replied, “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.”

    This supports the OP, of course, but maybe the re-conversion was motivated by conscience, and was not a purely political calculation.

    1. Yeah, to me the question is whether Wallace was sincerely racist back then or cynically using racism to manipulate the voters.

      I’m not sure which is more morally troublesome.

      1. It’s kind of like picking which lung to get shot in, isn’t it.

      2. His judicial voting history suggests he was no worse a racist than most in his place and time in history, and likely more progressive than average. I suspect, though, that he was absolutely sticking to his values as governor. Sadly, he valued power above pretty much everything else.

    2. Thanks for that. I had not known that about Wallace. It buttresses the thesis so much that I wonder it wasn’t included in the background.

    3. Fabulous response!

      The move toward racism and segregation certainly seems cynically motivated, given Wallace’s candid words to a supporter. How much can you distance yourself from the desires of the populace if you want to get elected?

      But, one caveat. There were more forces at work than just “racism” versus “openness” (I’m blanking on the best word), which in any event tend to be presented in stereotyped terms. To fit in either politically or personally, people tend to loudly espouse those points with which they can live most easily, and play down those which they dislike (i.e., “the spiral of silence”). They may even occasionally dispute certain issues with others of the in-group. That helps justify their position, and it can earn them the privileged aura of the “maverick” or “eccentric.” As long as a person doesn’t do that too often (there’s good evidence that others consider that person to be disagreeable).

  4. This, and similar conversions, is why the South is now mostly Republican.

  5. I noticed this in Watson’s Wikipedia entry:

    “Watson began to support the Farmers’ Alliance platform and was elected to the United States House of Representatives as an Alliance Democrat in 1890. He served in the House from 1891 until March 1893. In Congress, Watson was the only Southern Alliance Democrat to abandon the Democratic caucus, instead attending the first People’s Party congressional caucus. At that meeting, he was nominated for Speaker of the House by the eight Western Populist Representatives. Watson was instrumental in the founding of the Georgia Populist Party in early 1892.

    “The People’s Party advocated the public ownership of the railroads, steamship lines, and telephone and telegraph systems. It also supported the free and unlimited coinage of silver, the abolition of national banks, a system of graduated income tax and the direct election of United States Senators. As a Populist, Watson tried to unite the agrarians across class lines, overcoming racial divides. He also supported the right of black men to vote. The failures of the Populists’ attempt to make political progress through fusion tickets with the Democrats in 1896 and 1898 deeply affected Watson.”

    1. It also credits Watson with Congress adopting Rural Free Delivery: “Rural Free Delivery (RFD), legislation that Watson pushed through Congress in 1893, eliminated the need for individuals living in more remote homesteads to pick up mail, sometimes at distant post offices, or to pay private carriers for delivery.”

      1. But who could have predicted that he’d shift from his enlightened advocacy of free shit, government ownership of the means of distribution and income taxes, and become a demagogue!

  6. My father-in-law was a racist to his dying days. He also made a living in Texas, being the only locksmith willing to go in minority rough areas that normally weren’t kind to whites. As a result, people in those areas left him alone.

    Needing a service, or needing money to support a family, can go a long way to smoothing over harmful attitudes. One might not be able to give those attitudes up entirely, but they can at least be put aside and ignored.

  7. Great example. I’ll use it in my business and government class. It would be even better if you can give us a Tom Watson quote from when he was pro-black too. Do you have any at hand?

    Strom Thurmond is another good example, but it would be hard to beat George Wallace.

    1. I would think it would be easy to beat a guy in a wheelchair, except for his bodyguards of course.

  8. Interesting point, one that may be further illustrated by observation of the changing policy positions of US Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Cory Gardner (R-CO).

    In both cases, they started out as US Representatives elected from comparatively rural, comparatively conservative House districts. They both starting shifting their positions leftward before beginning a run for state-wide office, and those shifts deepened after being elected.

    Interesting also that right-to-left shifts seem more common—Heriot went back more than 100 years for her example. I can’t think any such recent L2R example comparable to Gardner’s and Gillibrand’s R2L. Supreme Court Justice Byron White perhaps? (Movement of Justices seems preponderantly R2L.)

    I’m sure there must be some—any suggestions? Looking for major State-wide elected office, probably limited to Senator or Governor. More likely to be conservative R Governors I think (like Heriot’s example, with the exception that Southern D Governors of the time were far more conservative than Northern D Gov’s), implementing Federal programs they’d campaigned against as too Liberal. Any Senators you can think of?

    1. Clarification: “Heriot went back more than 100 years for her L2R example”

  9. Now that the Voting Rights Act has been (with your approval) de-fanged, we can expect today’s George Wallaces to revert to his 1963 strategy, insofar as it can be practiced nowadays. Actually, that’s already happened.

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