It was on that fateful day — Jan. 14, 1963 — that Gov. Wallace declared, “segregation now … segregation tomorrow … segregation forever.”
And, in the years that followed, that pledge was abandoned — reluctantly by some, readily by others.
Countless historians and political scientists have examined Wallace’s career as governor and as a presidential candidate in part for what he did, but also for his legacy. Dan Carter, considered the most insightful of the Wallace biographers, has called the Alabama governor the father of the “new conservativism” and the most “influential loser” in American history.
But what if Wallace had lost the gubernatorial election of 1962?
A field of study known as “counterfactual history” speculates on what might have happened if a key event had not taken place.
What if Lee had not charged the center that third day at Gettysburg?
What if Hitler had not attacked Russia?
What if Wallace had lost his race for governor in 1962 and the “segregation forever” speech was never made?
Would Alabama have been a different state, and would America have been a different nation?
As far as Alabama is concerned, it would have meant that either James E. “Big Jim” Folsom or Ryan deGraffenried would have been governor.
Folsom, for whom economic populism was more important that racial populism, would have overseen an administration where the “little man” might be black as well as white.
Candidate deGraffenried, with the backing of the business community, might have put economic development over segregation, as other governors in other Southern states would do. Judging from his 1966 campaign for the state’s highest office, he likely would have been a more pragmatic problem-solver than an ideologue.
However, one must remember that this was Alabama, and George Wallace in the 1950s was successful because he knew how to play on racial prejudices and fears that were already there. He did not invent them. He only encouraged them and gave them voice.
So, would it have made any difference if Wallace had not become Alabama’s governor?
Or, to put it another way, could a Folsom or a deGraffenried have made a difference?
Possibly, but only if they had the support of more moderate and more tolerant Alabamians. Yet, if there were not enough moderate, tolerant Alabamians to elect them — and there were enough of immoderate, intolerant Alabamians to elect Wallace — what counterfactual history can teach us in this case becomes clear.
It would take more than a different governor to change Alabama.
Seldom is a single event enough to change the course of history, and in the case of elections, where the elected represents more than himself, the victory of one candidate has to be seen as something more.
In 1962, George Wallace was Alabama — at least the majority.
By the time Wallace died in 1998, both he and Alabama had changed. Maybe not as much as some people hoped, but more than many people expected.
That is what Alabamians must consider as they ponder what has happened in the last 50 years.