George Wallace at Harvard
Once upon a time, a politician did a very audacious thing.
In the fall of 1963, first-year Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, who already had national ambitions, was facing an image problem. In June, he had followed through on his campaign pledge to “stand in the schoolhouse door” to prevent integration at the University of Alabama, but the armed might of the federal government had integrated anyway.
Then came the Sunday morning in September when four young black girls were killed while attending church in Birmingham when a dynamite bomb exploded. Wallace had nothing to do with this act, but the civil-rights movement was intent on associating him with it. MLK himself told Wallace in a telegram that, “The blood of our little children is on your hands.”
So Wallace felt pressed to do something. I will leave it to the learned reader of The Fleming Foundation to speculate what the average politician would embark upon to shore up the cracks in his or her image given a similar set of circumstances. But I will tell you what the governor actually did.
He decided to go on a national speaking tour. His chosen audiences would not be those friendly to him, but those most likely to hate him with the most intensity— the universities. These would not just be any universities, either. Wallace chose to begin this tour where he would be least expected or welcomed, the Ivy League.
Why on earth would he do such a thing? First, Wallace at that time was an extremely confident man. Even in 1963, he was honing his public speaking into an art form, whereby he could not only deliver powerful rhetoric, but administer one-liners and off-the-cuff responses to hecklers that would soon become legendary.
Secondly, by striking at the heart of enemy territory, Wallace knew he could easily exceed the expectations of a very elitist, arrogant, yet ignorant crowd of Yankee “pointy-headed intellectuals” who probably presumed Wallace would try to make the trip from Montgomery to Massachusetts on a wagon pulled by a mule.
I am reminded of being in grade school in Alabama, when we had a transplanted Yankee family move in to what I’m sure was perceived as a primitive land. The young girl who joined our class expressed to us her relief that we did not fit the stereotypical image she was provided. She expected us to resemble caricatures from Hee Haw, overall-clad, chewing on pieces of hay, plucking on banjos, striving mightily to string together complete sentences while spitting ‘baccy juice betwixt our teeth.
Wallace was sure he could acquit himself well in the face of such expectations.
The tour was scheduled to start in October at Yale University, but the students there had withdrawn their invitation at the urging of their provost, who must have presupposed the danger a contrary view might have on the precious minds of Connecticut’s most promising youth. So Wallace decided to use this to his advantage and accept an invitation to arch-rival Harvard.
On the day prior to his speech, Wallace arrived in Boston and appeared on news programs. On one television show he was accompanied by Vermont Governor Phillip Hoff, who touted a national public accommodations law similar to the one in his State. Wallace interjected, asking about the population of blacks in Vermont. “Very small,” Huff admitted. His point made, Wallace nodded his head vigorously.
Afterward, the station’s personnel continued to direct questions to Wallace about the evils of segregation. Wallace employed a response that he would craft into a powerful strategy to such charges when he threw them back on the accuser. He asked how many black executives worked at that particular television station. How many black salesmen, photographers, announcers? It turns out there was not a single black employee in the outfit. With no further questions, Wallace smiled, winked, and sauntered out the door.
That night, outside the auditorium Wallace was scheduled to appear the next day, dozens of protestors (these have been and shall always be with us, it seems) made it clear they did not care to hear from the governor.
Nevertheless, on November 4, Wallace strutted to the microphone to address the assembled crowd. Despite their provost’s efforts, there was a contingent of Yale students who wished to hear what he had to say, so a telephonic hookup had been established with the Harvard theatre that ran to an off-campus hall in Connecticut. When introduced amidst boos and hisses, Wallace said, “Hello, there, Yale. I hope you’re listening. Those hisses are for you, not me.” Laughter and applause followed. The ice was broken.
He wasn’t finished. He upbraided Yale for allowing an American Communist party leader to speak before denying Wallace. “I suppose I’m more subversive than he is. Of course, you Harvard boys and girls say that we live in a society that is supposed to be liberal where everybody can express his viewpoint. But at Yale, they mean that everybody can express his viewpoint, as long as they agree with it.”
Wallace then delved into his prepared speech, where he defended his native Southland and its history. He pointed out how the South bore “the unique distinction of being the only territory conquered by the armies of the United States” that had not been “rehabilitated at the expense of the United States.” There had been no Marshall Plan or foreign aid for Southerners, who had battled back from the devastation and poverty resulting from the war.
His primary target was an ever-increasingly politicized Supreme Court more interested in social causes than upholding the Constitution. He may have surprised the locals when he cited an 1849 ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts that held the city of Boston had the right to establish separate schools for blacks and whites. As he had the day before with Vermont’s governor and the personnel at the television station, Wallace was using the exposure of Northern hypocrisy as a weapon.
There were hecklers to deal with, but the ice that had been broken continued to thaw somewhat. A Boston newspaper reported Wallace was booed six times and applauded fifteen times. It turned out that not only could the hick from down South form complete sentences and keep from drooling on himself, but he had some salient points about constitutional law and social issues that were well-received by Northern audiences.
It was on to Dartmouth the next night, then Smith College and Brown University in the following few days. Wallace kept up his press interviews and television appearances. He and his entourage pronounced themselves pleased.
The reviews back home were mostly favorable. Grover Hall of the Montgomery Advertiser wrote that the Northern audiences were “probably adverse to the Wallace viewpoint” but “Wallace disarmed them partially and wowed them entirely… If Wallace can disarm and charm Harvard, how could he fail elsewhere?”
Montgomery reporter Bob Ingram wrote that Wallace “turned a hostile, hissing audience of twelve hundred students into something closely approximating a Wallace campaign rally. The ovation he received at the conclusion rattled the rafters.”
Eighteen days after Harvard, John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and a Southerner (at least by birth) occupied the White House. But Wallace had just begun. In 1964 Wallace declared for the presidency and would rekindle his 1963 incursion into enemy territory with surprisingly strong showings in Northern primaries.
No longer pigeonholed to the issue of segregation and no longer seen as a purely sectional politician, Wallace would go on to be a consequential figure on the national scene with three more successive runs for the presidency, transforming his social views into broader issues of national imposition on State powers and local customs that resonated with common men all over the country.
And it all started when a politician took the unusual step of doing a very courageous thing.