No two men more extensively shaped life in Alabama during the 20th century. But Alabama didn't choose Martin Luther King Jr. Or at least not so many did---that honor belongs solely to those who called King to lead Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery and those who followed him through the gauntlet of firehoses, dogs, and billy clubs on the streets of Birmingham in 1963. But Alabama chose George Corley Wallace Jr.---not everyone, of course, but enough to elect him governor in 1962. When term limits prevented him from seeking re-election in 1966, his wife, Lurleen,was elected. When she died unexpectedly in office, Alabamians re-elected her husband in 1970. Not even the assassin's bullets on the presidential campaign trail could keep Wallace down, and he served one final term as governor of Alabama from 1983 to 1987.
Fifty years ago, Wallace gave Alabama what we wanted: a full-throated, no-compromise defense of segregation between whites and blacks. King and his allies may have won the Montgomery bus boycott in the courts in 1956, but eight years later Wallace still won in the court of public opinion. He stood in Montgomery on January 14, 1963, and took the oath of office where Jefferson Davis once shouldered his duties as the first and only president of the Confederate States of America.
It is very appropriate that from this cradle of the Confederacy, this very heart of the great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us time and again down through history. Let us rise to the call for freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. 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.
Wallace knew this line would invite boisterous applause in Montgomery. But he did not know this line would be a relic of history by the end of 1963. Forever didn't even last one year.
Stain of Segregation
No one will fault you, Christian, for being discouraged by trends in Western culture. You may feel like religious freedom has been trampled under the feet of tyranny. You may feel like biblical values have been lost forever. You may wonder how any culture devoted to individualism, consumerism, and relativism can long endure. But know this lesson from Scripture and history: no injustice survives the purifying fires of God forever.
Today it looks like marriage has been lost. Already crippled by divorce and cohabitation, marriage has been twisted beyond recognition by gay rights. We fear that now, tomorrow, and forever Christian voices will be silenced either by force or by social intimidation. We wonder how we became the enemy when we only want what's best for our neighbors. And we cannot foresee how this trend might reverse. Then again, neither could African Americans trapped in decades of Jim Crow oppression foresee how God would bring a sudden end to segregation during Wallace's tenure.
When King began leading freedom marches in Alabama's largest city, Birmingham, it appeared more likely that his career would end in failure and irrelevance than in a national holiday. Writing from Birmingham Jail to fellow clergymen in April 1963, King believed against evidence that history would tell a different story than his momentary troubles suggested.
One day the South will recognize its real heroes. . . . One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers.
Both sides read the same Bible and prayed to the same God. Both sides asked God to defeat the other. But God could not answer the prayers of both sides in the way they hoped. God had his own purposes. In this appointed time of 1963, God willed to remove the stain of segregation. For "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether" (Psalm 19:9, KJV). And God had decided to use the weak to shame the strong.
King's decision to march children through the streets of public safety commissioner Bull Connor's Birmingham reflected less of his organizational genius and more of his desperation. He had already gone to jail. He had pleaded for moderate white clergymen to join the cause. But so far King had little to show for the hardship. The great industrial city might never change, and "Birmingham's past would be his future, in which case he was finished," Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch observed.
The turning point came on Friday, May 3, 1963. More than 1,000 young people crammed inside Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and slowly emerged with the goal of marching through Birmingham's segregated downtown business district. Aiming to keep them away, Bull Connor's fire department unleashed water from monitor guns that could strip bark from trees 100 feet away. Almost all of the crowd fled for cover. Branch recounts:
Then the firemen advanced toward the holdouts, pounding them with water at close range. The holdouts sat down on the sidewalk to stabilize themselves. It was a moment of baptism for the civil rights movement, and Birmingham's last effort to wash away the stain of dissent against segregation.
The effect was immediate, though not in the way Connor, Wallace, and other defenders of segregation had hoped. Black businessmen, once fearful of pushing desegregation too quickly, joined King's cause when they saw little black girls tumbling down the street. Newspaper readers across the nation recoiled at the image of a white policeman unleashing a dog to bite the abdomen of a smartly dressed young black boy from a wealthy family. Nor could President John F. Kennedy, thus far ambivalent about civil rights, any longer ignore the television images putting a lie to democratic ideals at the height of the Cold War. One month later, after Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to prevent black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama, Kennedy addressed the nation and proposed the Civil Rights Act. Passed in 1964 after Kennedy's death, this sweeping legislation, among many other provisions, barred cities like Birmingham and states like Alabama from enforcing segregation between races.
We who call Alabama's largest city home live in full knowledge of our national reputation. In the Heart of Dixie, we're more likely to be remembered for Wallace's vow than for King's letter. The church where I belong meets in the education building constructed by the late Connor's church. I drive through his old neighborhood every Sunday afternoon and evening. As the great Southern writer William Faulkner once quipped, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
No one knows better than us how much more we need to grow in grace and understanding toward one another across ethnic lines. We've solved government segregation but not poverty, not racism, not violence. But even as we wonder how God might intervene to do justice with these supposedly intractable problems, we remember 50 years ago when Wallace made a promise God would not allow him to keep. We remember King's civil rights movement, which battled Wallace with an impregnable combination of conviction, courage, compassion, and cooperation. And we take heart, because nothing will be impossible with God (Luke 1:37).