“George Wallace,” said J.L. Chestnut, a black civil-rights attorney from Selma, “was the most liberal judge I ever practiced in front of. He was the first judge in Alabama to call me ‘Mister’ in his courtroom.”
Wallace brought those same sensibilities – the economic populism of the New Deal and a message of racial moderation – to his first run for governor in 1958.
“He cared about things like roads and schools,” his daughter remembers, “things that would actually make life better.” As election day approached, Wallace stared at the camera in a TV ad, his dark eyes softer than they would later become, and declared, with an evident sense of conviction: “I want to tell the good people of this state … if I didn’t have what it took to treat a man fair regardless of the color of his skin, then I don’t have what it takes to be the governor of your great state.”
Wallace, however, faced a formidable opponent. John Patterson, the state’s segregationist attorney general, made no promises about treating people fairly. Taking a stance he would later regret, Patterson drew a hard line on the issue of race. “Once you let the bar down,” he proclaimed, “it’s all over.” He ran with support from the Ku Klux Klan, and told the voters he was “honored” to have it. He won in a landslide.
In The Broken Road, Peggy Kennedy writes of a sad election night with her family: “Daddy gathered us up and took us to a waiting car to drive to a local television station on the outskirts of Montgomery. He was going to concede. I sat in the middle of the front seat next to Daddy and buried my face in his side. I felt his arm surround me as he pulled me close and whispered: ‘Well, we lost, Sugah, but it is going to be all right. Sweetie, now don’t you cry.’ The tears I was drying with the handkerchief he pulled from his pocket were not for me, they were for him.”
She also writes of the dark underside of that tender moment. A few days after his defeat, Wallace paid a visit to Seymore Trammell, the district attorney of Barbour County, Alabama, who had been one of the leaders in his campaign. “Seymore,” he said, “I was outniggered by John Patterson, and I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again.”