George Wallace wasn't always the bitter racist that he became and is now remembered for.
Early in his political career, he had been a moderate, even progressive on racial issues. He served on the board of the Tuskegee Institute, the black college that was founded by Booker T. Washington. In the 1950s, he was a circuit judge in Alabama and had a reputation of being fair and not biased on race. And in his first campaign for governor of Alabama in 1958, he was a racial moderate.
He was, in that era, a progressive liberal.
But Wallace lost that 1958 governor's race and it changed him. He lost to an avowed segregationist who had the support of Alabama's KKK.
“I was outn****ed by John Patterson (who won the governorship), and I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outn******ed again," Wallace reportedly said to one of his supporters.
The rest is history. Wallace became the leading voice in the South for segregation. He won the governorship in 1962 vowing to stop integration.
Throughout the 1960s, he stirred up racial hatred not only in Alabama, but across the nation. Innocent people died because of the hatred Wallace helped fuel with his rhetoric.
A recent article written by Frye Gaillard on the Bitter Southerner website had this to say about Wallace's impact during his 1968 run for president:
"This was the dark and brilliant heart of his charisma, to reach deep into the resentments of the crowd and stir them into a catharsis of hate – to make the people in his audience believe their worst instincts were actually their best. It was a potent toxin in America, and, some would argue, it changed the political DNA of this country."
Wallace was a demagogue of the worst kind. Over the years, he modified his rhetoric from direct assaults on blacks to code words that were little more than a thin veil barely masking their real meaning. Such manipulation soon became common where racists abandoned direct confrontation for more subtle assaults on blacks and the Civil Rights movement.
In many ways, America is now again experiencing a political atmosphere polluted by demagogues whose rhetoric has created a huge amount of divisiveness in the country. Too many Americans are acting on their worst instincts, but believe it is their best instincts.
That mob mentality is sucking in people who would otherwise probably not be party to such extremism, save for a heated atmosphere that gives them license to do so.
Such was the case last week with our own local congressman, Rep. Doug Collins. Collins has long been a defender of President Donald Trump and is a frequent guest on right-wing shows on Fox News.
Despite that, Collins has a record that is more moderate than his defense of Trump suggests. He often works across the aisle in Congress with Democrats to push for legislation that is of broader interests. Collins is a minister and is a decent human being, despite his political defense of an immoral president.
But last week, Collins got caught up in the ugly rhetoric of our times. Appearing on the right-wing Lou Dobbs television show, Collins said this about Democrats and Trump's order to kill a top-raking Iranian general:
"Nancy Pelosi does it again and her Democrats fall right in line," he said. "One, they are in love with terrorists — we see that. They mourn Soleimani more than they mourn our Gold Star families who are the ones who suffered under Soleimani. That's a problem," Collins said.
The backlash was immediate. Defending Trump is one thing, but to say that Democrats are "in love with terrorists" was a rhetorical assault that crossed a very bright line. Equating another political party with terrorists was beyond the pale.
Collins later apologized for the comments, but the damage was done. Those on the far right (which is the core of Fox News viewers) who heard Collins saw a U.S. Congressman affirm their own distorted beliefs that all Democrats are evil, terrorist-lovers. Some right-wing nuts were furious that Collins apologized for his comments.
Collins' rhetoric fueled hatred, deepening the wedge that already exists in our troubled political culture.
From such rhetoric does violence spring.
It was the racist rhetoric of the 1950s and 1960s, much of it sparked by George Wallace and his ilk, that led to the murder of four little girls in Birmingham in 1963 and to other racist killings in that era.
Collins is no George Wallace, but like Wallace, he is politically ambitious and has gotten caught up in the propaganda of our times. Wallace wanted to be governor and was willing to use race-baiting as a means to an end, even though his own political history had been much more moderate and tolerant.
Likewise, Collins has political ambitions and was willing to fuel political hatred of Democrats as a means to an end, namely to pander to his own right-wing political base.
To disagree with another political party about policy is one thing; to engender contempt and hatred is dangerous. Collins debased himself by wallowing in the rhetorical filth of right-wing nuts.
Thankfully, Collins quickly recognized his mistake and apologized for it. It took Wallace many more years to reconcile his hatred. Like a lot of white political segregationists of the 1950s and 1960s, Wallace eventually recognized the damage his hateful rhetoric had done, but by that time, it was too late.
This is all important because next Monday is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a time to remember how one man faced down hatred without resorting to vicious rhetoric or violence of his own.
In this era where the political atmosphere leads men to say things they would never say in another time, we need to remember King's wisdom:
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that."