George Wallace was the governor of Alabama, and he succeeded in running for that office on what is called an “ultra-segregationist” platform. In his inaugural address in 1963, he proclaimed: “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.”
Making that speech even more inflammatory, Wallace gave that speech in the same spot that Jefferson Davis was sworn in when the South removed itself from the Union at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861.
Wallace decided to run for President in 1972, and had quite a bit of support in the South (as you might expect at that time), and surprisingly in the North. He had run for the office of President twice before (1964, 1968), and received some support. He remains the only third-party candidate ever to receive pledged electoral college votes to this very day.
It isn’t, however, his four failed presidential bids that make him so controversial or so infamous, but instead his rhetoric surrounding segregation and Jim Crow, and his attempt in June 1963 to prevent black students from being enrolled at the University of Alabama.
It was during the 1972 presidential campaign that Wallace had a bit of a reformation, as he announced that he no longer supported segregation, and that he had always been a “moderate” when it came to civil rights. In many ways, this was simply changing with the times. When Wallace first entered politics, segregation and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans was normal in the South. But through the late 1960s and early 70s, laws were passed that made Jim Crow and segregation illegal.
On May 15, 1972, Wallace was shot at a mall in Laurel, Maryland. The attempted assassination ended his third run for the White House, as he spent months in the hospital fighting for his life. While he survived, he would be paralyzed for the rest of his life.
The man who shot him, Arthur Bremer, apparently had no motive besides wanting the fame of having shot a politician. He had considered Richard Nixon as a target, but had chalked that idea due to the difficulty of getting close enough to the President. Bremer ended up serving 35 years in prison and was released on parole in 2007.
While in the hospital, Wallace actually won the primaries for both Maryland and Michigan.
Because he ran for president so many times, he was very well-known. His antics regarding race and segregation aside, his influence on American politics is quite vast. He was dubbed the “most influential loser” of the 20th century by two of his biographers. He was instrumental in setting up major educational institutions in Alabama, and he remains one of the longest-serving governors in US history, having served 16 years as Alabama’s governor.
Wallace died in 1998. Due to his rhetoric on controversial topics, he remains one of the most controversial, yet well-known, figures of the 20th century.