Taylor Branch on how George Wallace invented our current political discourse

Taylor Branch on how George Wallace invented our current political discourse January 26, 2013

This is pretty terrific, James Fallows has posted a video of his interview with historian Taylor Branch at the Aspen Institute.

The excuse for the hour-long conversation is the publication of Branch’s latest book, The King Years, which is a distillation or concentration of his massive, and massively important, trilogy on the Civil Rights eraParting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge.

Fallows asks Branch about the series of important 50-year anniversary milestones we will see this year of watershed moments in the Civil Rights Movement and Branch, speaking conversationally, works his way into the following discussion of segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace and his lasting influence on American politics, discourse and imagination.

Head over to Fallows’ blog at The Atlantic to watch the full video, or just watch the first 10 minutes or so to hear Branch discuss Wallace. But here’s my hasty transcript of those comments, which I think affords some rich insights on the roots of contemporary anti-government conservatism, on the resentful distress of the privileged, and on how America, despite itself, has changed for the better over the past 50 years:

BRANCH: Fifty years ago this month was also when George Wallace took office in Alabama, in a famous inaugural speech pledging “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

In a South that had segregation embedded in the constitutions of the southern states, and in the institutions widespread across the North. In a society that was so segregated that it’s beyond the memory we take for granted all of these things … College sports in the South were segregated. … There was no Sun Belt, it was poor. Segregated by race down to the public libraries. Segregated by gender to the point that there were no female students at the University of Virginia, very few at my old alma mater, North Carolina. None at Yale and Princeton yet. Let alone in West Point. Let alone in combat in the military. The word “gay” hadn’t even been invented. No, nothing for disability. No seatbelts in cars. TV ads incessantly promoting cigarettes as healthy, sophisticated and invigorating. That’s 50 years ago.

Wallace pledged to protect segregation. Only 50 years ago. He failed. But in his failure, he invented most of the language that is chillingly contemporary today in resenting the government and the political activity that forced about these changes for equal citizenship through the doorway of race and then opening up to everybody else. He started cussing, when it was no longer respectable to stand up and defend segregation, he started cussing the government and the politics that people resented and feared for these changes ahead. He talked about pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington telling you how to run your business, and where you had to send your children to school. And that they were in cahoots with a biased national media that had a racial agenda. Whose effective goal was to concentrate all … power in the central government in Washington.

That language is contemporary. It’s the language of “government is bad.” … It started out consciously in resistance, though Wallace’s … second step, after inventing all of these ingenius terms that we live with, his second one was to insist indignantly, whenever questioned, that he had never said anything in his whole public career that had any bad racial reflection on anyone. And that there was no racial motive in any of this. Because that was the sine qua non of creating unconscious memory in culture. And it became comfortable for a lot of people, because most people are in the business of making themselves comfortable.

Barack Obama is not. Any minority person lives having to stretch themselves across the boundaries, because their accepted world is not the accepted world. So Barack Obama is the first elected African American president, but he’s also the one who’s mentioned race least since Dwight Eisenhower. And whenever he does a storm comes up. If he says his son would’ve looked like Trayvon Martin, the whole world goes nuts, saying that he’s being too black. …

So it shows that we are accepting, and we are moving forward, and it is vital, but we’re doing it on our terms, that is, the majority culture is doing it on our terms, and we’re blind to the fact that our unconscious assumptions … our political discourse — anti-government, in which “big government” is bad, is out of phase with what ought to be a very bracing and optimistic view of what we’ve accomplished in the last 50 years that ought to steel us for the task of again stepping outside our comfort zones and again trying to tackle difficult problems today.

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  • reynard61

    “Wallace pledged to protect segregation. Only 50 years ago. He failed. But in his failure, he invented most of the language that is chillingly contemporary today in resenting the government and the political activity that forced about these changes for equal citizenship through the doorway of race and then opening up to everybody else.”

    And the most wretched irony in all this is that Wallace was a *Democrat* at the time. I can only wonder what any of the most demagogic Republican/Teabagging pundits and politicians make of it that George Wallace originally belonged to the Party that they’ve set out to destroy (or at least cripple) with such vigor, venom, vehemence and vitriol. I mean, it’s not like they’ve built the kind of mythology around him that they have around their ideological God-King Ronald Reagan.

    Another irony is that he, like Lee Atwater two decades later, apparently regretted his political behavior (although there seems to be some doubt as to whether he changed his personal views) and made at least some effort to make amends. I can hear the heads exploding even now…

  • vsm

    As anyone who’s seen Bringing Up Baby knows, “gay” has been associated with homosexuality before the mainstream heard about it in the late sixties.

  • I’ve typically seen that fact and other aspects of history – ignoring the fact that it is, you know, history and that times change (because they fear change) – cited to “prove” that Republicans totally aren’t racist for reals you guys because 50 years ago Democrats totally were racist.

    It doesn’t do any good to point out that as support of institutionalized racism shifted from one party to the other, so too did that voting bloc.

  •  The thing you have to remember is the right and left (or what passes for left) in your country has changed over the years. At its inception the Democratic Party was right of where it is now (and indeed quite possibly as far right as the Republicans are now – compare the tea party with Andrew Jackson’s supporters http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0910/42640.html ) and gradually drifted left. The Republicans on the otherhand were originally genuinely left wing and somehow ended up where they are now.

    Give it a century and maybe it’ll be all change again…

  • Water_Bear

    A little more than “quite possibly;” the Democrats in the 1860’s were the main supporters of slavery and “state’s rights” who left the legislature en-masse to join the Confederacy in their rebellion. The Republicans were a young party of abolitionists who later used their de-facto majority to pass the 13th-15th amendments, which if enforced below the Mason-Dixon would have kicked us a full century forwards in terms of race relations.

  • fnarf

    You should read the passages about Wallace in “Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class”, the Parkman Prize-winning book by Jefferson Cowie. Wallace is a more complex historical figure than just the arch-segregationist; he was also the last working-class Democrat. Cowie examines Wallace’s appeal to Northern Democrats in both 1968 and 1972, and it’s startling to read about white factory workers in Michigan, for instance, who support Wallace — but whose second choice isn’t another cultural conservative, or even Nixon, but a Communist! Wallace was opposed to integration, but he was motivated primarily not by racism (though his racism was obviously central) but by the disappearing working class. The 70s were a time when the white male working class was being destroyed not just by having to surrender large parts of their economic pie to women and blacks, but by the rapid and irreversible shrinking of that pie. For instance, while black workers and women workers both made large percentage gains during this time, their raw numbers declined — because the working class declined so precipitously. Wallace was the first guy who figured out how to tap into that demographic of resentment, though Nixon and Reagan were the ones who turned it into victories; Wallace was always cramped by his regional Southern worldview, and would never be able to live down those explicit segregationist remarks, unlike the more coded references of Dick and Ronald.

  • stardreamer42

     Wallace was a Dixiecrat, the last of the Great Ones (in their eyes) before the Dixiecrats decamped en masse to the Republican Party as part of the GOP’s “Southern strategy”. People who talk about how the Democrats have historically been as racist and corrupt as the Republicans are missing an important point — it’s the SAME racism and corruption.

  • PollyAmory

    “Wallace was opposed to integration, but he was motivated primarily not by racism (though his racism was obviously central) ”

    Give me a break. This has as much revisionist stench about it as does the assertion that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery and Reconstruction failed cause all them black folks didn’t know how to be free. 

  • Wallace is a more complex historical figure than just the arch-segregationist; he was also the last working-class Democrat.

    I remember reading this as well as seeing it in some documentaries. Wallace was that kind of southern populist (outside of race) in the vein of people like Huey Long and Jim Folsom.

  • The Republicans were a young party of abolitionists

    No they were not. Abolitionists were almost all Republican, but all Republicans were not abolitionist by a long shot. Republicans were for white workers’ and small business owners’ and family farmers’ rights and against the spread of slavery, as the spread of slavery made it much tougher for white workers to get jobs. They noticed that economic inequality between white people was more pronounced in slave states than in free states, but they did not care to fight to change the slave states. Their attitude toward black people was basically “not our problem, and let’s keep it that way.” They just wanted to keep their piece of the pie; and if Republican politicians had started stumping an abolition platform, they would have lost voters in droves.

  • he was also the last working-class Democrat

    I will assume you mean “powerful Democratic politician”. Even with that caveat, you are so completely and utterly wrong that I don’t even know where to begin. You appear steeped in a bunch of Southern mythology or something. 

  • It’s also worth noting that neither Huey Long nor Jim Folsom had any truck with race-baiting.

    In particular, Jim Folson is noted for a speech he made in 1949 that counselled racial brotherhood instead of separateness.

  • fnarf

    I’m not steeped in any Southern anything. And I’m not wrong. Read the book. Maybe you didn’t notice that the working class was destroyed in this country in the seventies; maybe you haven’t noticed that union membership has declined by half since the 80s, and by about 2/3 since its heyday in the 50s. Those were Wallace’s people, in surprising large part, even in the North. Wallace won the 1972 Democratic primary in Michigan, home of the auto industry, which isn’t part of the deep south last time I checked.

    George McGovern was the first Democratic candidate to lose the labor vote. Wallace had it. It is not shocking or surprising that Wallace was a Democrat; he and people like him were in fact a key part of the Democratic coalition for decades. 

  • fnarf

    Explain to me why you are assigning points of view to me that I do not hold? There is no revisionism here; it’s pretty straightforward. Maybe you should read the book I cited before telling me how much stench it gives off. It won the Francis Parkman Prize, which isn’t typically given to Southern apologists, of which neither Cowie or myself are a part of. 

    You seem to be confusing the statements “Wallace was complex” with “Wallace is my idol”.  Mine is not a pro-Wallace argument.

    There are many vast reserves of class resentment in the US that are not EXCLUSIVELY explained by racism. And there were many racist politicians in the South in the 50s, 60s and 70s who never attracted any working-class votes at all in the north — Richard Russell, James Eastland, Lester Maddox, just to name a few. Wallace did. Why do you think that is?

    Here’s a clue: ‘At the heart of the Wallace phenomenon was ambiguity about his cause. As one trucker explained, “I’m for him or for the Communists, I don’t care, just anybody who wouldn’t be afraid of the big companies.” While conservative strategists were originally skeptical of Wallace’s “country and western Marxism”, they quickly found it the key to their own populist appeal in the 1970s — a key that would eventually open the door to the white working class vote for Ronald Reagan.’ That’s from the book. You should read it.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Most of that I have no idea what you’re talking about, but union membership declining? That I am fairly confident is entirely due to conservative insistence that labor unions at best have served their purpose and are no longer needed, at worst due to conservative efforts to smash them to bits and also convince the unions’ potential members that unions are the scourge of Satan and to be avoided at all costs.

  • fnarf

    Yeah, some of that, but realistically the power of unions started to die when the jobs went away. Manufacturing jobs used to be almost 40% of all the jobs in the US; now it’s way below 10%. There are fewer people employed in manufacturing today than in 1941, even though the population of the country is almost three times what it was then. Large industrial unions — the only kind that have ever been strong in this country — have been in precipitous decline along with their industries for a long time, and that would still be true whether anybody was attacking them politically or not. More specifically to Wallace, the unions used to be very closely politically aligned with the Democratic Party, but that ended for good in 1972, when McGovern was nominated despite a vigorous union-led “Anybody But McGovern” movement. Wallace was the beneficiary.

    Unions are different today, of course; nobody pays any attention to the AFL-CIO or United Mine Workers, and, like the jobs themselves, the unions that have power are service-worker unions — government employees, SEIU, etc. They do indeed struggle against right-wing opposition like Scott Walker in Wisconsin. But even without the conservatives, it’s impossible to imagine unions today ever taking as strong a role in politics as they did back in the days of Walter Reuther. Not unless we undergo another wave of crippling strikes like we did then. And that kind of muscular activism took on a very different cast back then; the “working class” barely exists anymore, and the service workers are too busy trying to keep from getting laid off to do anything, while the elites in this country, right and left, fly higher than they ever did in the runup to the Great Depression.

  • Tricksterson

    You sound like a Wobblie (IWW, International Workers of the World).  Not saying that as an attack, just an observation.

  • fnarf

    Hah! No, though I understand where they’re coming from. I’m really curious, though, to find ways to unite some various strands of the class experience in the US into a lasting political coalition that’s anchored to the left, not the right. If the energy that got Obama elected could be connected to the non-crazy elements of the Tea Party (which is in part rooted in legitimate grievances, however manipulated and retrograde they appear to be) and an expression of the working class, specifically the white working class, expanded to include the service class that doesn’t even participate in politics or much public life, and that can get past the ways in which race has been used in the past as a lever to divide them from their brothers and sisters who are not white, we might actually be able to achieve some progressive goals. That’s my pipe dream. 

    Basically that means convincing the working-class whites that we’re not out to take more away from them, after they’ve had so much taken already, while also convincing the working-class people of color that we’re not trying to maintain barriers. Possible? I dunno. Certainly not by pretending that people’s class grievances aren’t real — even if those people themselves don’t understand that they have class grievances. I believe that it’s going to happen in the political process, though, unlike the Wobblies — yes, the same degenerate political process that gave us people like Wallace, and Nixon, and Reagan, and Bush. Obama’s accomplished it, to some extent, but he’s only got four years, and a paralyzed Congress to boot.

  • Shiloh

    “The word “gay” hadn’t even been invented.”  I believe this is untrue.  My grandmother in the 1950’s and 1960’s made jewelry and signed it as “Gloria Gay” – which in that time meant happy, carefree, and/or lively which are #3 and #4 of the dictionary definition.

  • fredgiblet

    I’m expecting a major revision if the Republicans continue to lose ground in the next presidential election.  We could see the reversal within 8 years.

  • Kiba

    Love that film ^_^

    Well why are you wearing these clothes?

    Because I just went GAY all of a sudden!


  • Huey Long was approached by a group of black hospital workers who said they were being shut out of jobs in favor of white workers. Long said, “Look at what happens, not what I say,” and made some speeches about how white people shouldn’t be touching black people’s bedpans.

    Ironic, yes. But the group got jobs. I always treasure the story as an example of how twisted the whole Southern Ethos is… even when you are trying to be a good person, the culture makes you do a bad thing.

  •  Well the democrats are definitely drifting right. If the Republican party’s tea party chasing leads to it starting to hemmorage its left wing (and it is does have a left wing – I know lifelong republicans who are left of the democrats but won’t believe me when I say it) it might abruptly change tack and start chasing them instead. So yeah, could happen.

    It’s a bit like my hope for the fallout of the coalition in the UK. I’m hoping that the Tory party will explode like Labour did in the early 80s after the LibLab pact of the late 70s. I really don’t know how long the left wing of the tories (as epitomise by Ken Clarke) can put up with the Tories UKIP chasing (which is analogous to the Republican’s tea party chasing) before they realise it’s not going to correct.

  • Kadh2000

    Gay as a word has existed for centuries.  I believe the line “gay hadn’t been invented yet” was about it pertaining to homosexuality.  As has been pointed out, Cary Grant (my favorite actor ever) said it in a movie from 1938.  One could argue that he meant “silly and frivolous”.  Most people of the time would have taken it that way.

    According to wikipedia, it was used in literature in association with homosexuality by Gertrude Stein in the book “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene ” (1922).

  • PollyAmory

    I don’t want to read the book you cited if it engages in this kind of pseudo-historical analysis. I can read  (and have read) Wallace’s speeches and his policy positions. If this book attempts some kind of sleight-of-hand “oh he was racist but maybe not that kind of racist and maybe what he did wasn’t about race” BS it’s not the kind of “history” I need to read. 

    He was a hateful Southern bigot much like many other hateful Southern bigots who have gotten revisionist treatment in recent decades. 

    I suggest you do some reading of your own. 

  • PollyAmory

    I read somewhere that Labour has been leading in the polls in the UK for the past several years and expects to come back to power in 2015. Here’s hoping.

  • Carstonio

    Wallace was liberal by Southern standards early in his political career. After losing elections to segregationists, he vowed never to let that happen again, leading him to become one of American racism’s leading advocates. Given his fervor, it’s very fair to assume that he held racist beliefs and wasn’t faking. But I see his beliefs as less important than the effects of his actions. Not just in pandering to the hatreds of voters, but in also corrupting attitudes toward government, as Fred describes. Echoes of Wallace can be heard in the rants of Tea Partyers, whose complaints about government almost always come down to welfare.

  • PollyAmory

    I’m ok with this. The person he actually was or the beliefs he actually held played no part in his politics, nor — therefore — should they play a part in how he is remembered and understood. 

  • Cary Grant said “gay” in a movie from 1938, and it was a double entendre there, and audiences were meant to see it as a double entendre. The lines make very little sense, comically, without that double entendre.

  • The working class was destroyed? Gee, I guess I should tell my working class friends that they don’t actually exist.

    You are, in fact, steeped in Southern revisionism. I’ve seen more than enough of it to recognize it, and I’m not going to pretend it’s anything but what it is. 

    Do some reading of your own. I’d recommend starting with The Wages of Whiteness by David R. Roediger.

  • fnarf

    If you got “oh he was racist but maybe not that kind of racist and maybe what he did wasn’t about race” from what I wrote, you need to work on your reading comprehension. You know, it’s possible for something to be “about race” and about more than race at the same time.

    And I think my reading list would compare favorably to yours. I’ve read all of Taylor Branch’s books, for starters. It would appear that you have a ready-made argument that you’ve got worked out, and you’re going to use it no matter what you’re arguing about, whether it fits or not. That’s too bad. I think I know where you’re coming from but your grasp of it is weak. And you need to fit some different lenses to your camera once in a while. 

    Jefferson Cowie is Professor of Labor History at Cornell University, not “psuedo-historical”.

  • I think he was exaggerating for dramatic effect. It IS clear that since the 1970s the mass proletarianization of the USA has reversed and in its place is a profound social and economic divergence.

  • fnarf

    Ask your working-class friends how they’re doing economically compared to people in a similar situation in, say, 1970.  While the GDP per person has doubled since then, approximately zero percent of those gains have accrued to the working class. If you’re talking about the service class, which is distinct from the old working class, they have sunk, not risen, in the past forty years, and millions of people have sunk with them, as they moved out of the working class and into the Wal-Mart class.

    I’ll read your book if you read mine. Roediger looks interesting. I’m sure it fits in well with Cowie; Cowie in fact cites his book and relies on it for much of his analysis. One of the things that destroyed the labor movement was its reliance on the same cadre of older white guys in the face of a changing membership, and the fact that the “reformers” all to often turned out to be other white guys who continued to cling to their dying white-male-industrial core instead of opening up to the new workers. As a result they lost all of their power. Tell me, does anyone even know who the head of the AFL-CIO is anymore? In the 60s and 70s he was on the news every night, as important as the President.

    Your continued “Southern revisionism” slur is just ignorant, sorry. I know all about the Southern revisionists and have nothing to do with them, and nothing to in anything I have written here or anywhere else proceeds from them.

  • fnarf

    Never underestimate Labour’s ability to fall to pieces. Miliband seems like he’s got firm control, but one never knows. The Tories are still struggling with the loss of their natural constituency (the nasty old-school upper-class or wanna-be-upper fox-hunting toffs in their Range Rovers) and are fighting to push their new agenda — which is, shockingly to American conservatives, pro-gay-marriage, pro-environmentalism, and pro-National Health (albeit on slightly lesser terms than Labour). Britain’s Conservatives are to the left of America’s Democrats, remember.  One assumes that the Lib-Dems have managed to piss off everybody in the country, including themselves, and those people will vote Labour, but one never knows.

    One thing that could throw a monkey wrench into the works is Scottish independence. The loss of that rock-solid left bloc (there is I believe a total of ONE Scottish Tory in Parliament) would give the Tories a nearly unbeatable edge, and leave all my Northern Labour friends stranded.

  • Carstonio

    From my viewing, the romantic comedies of Grant’s day had not only better writing, but also better appeal for both sexes. The studios today wrongly assume that the genre’s appeal is limited to women, and they write accordingly. Likewise, the action genre isn’t inherently a male one, or one for 12-year-old boys, Hollywood merely shapes those movies that way.

  • One assumes that the Lib-Dems have managed to piss off everybody in the country, including themselves.

    Oh so very much.

  • One assumes that the Lib-Dems have managed to piss off everybody in the country, including themselves.

    The thing I’ve noticed is they’re acting like the Canadian federal Liberals did in the era from 2006-2010: trying to differentiate themselves rhetorically, and then caving and voting with the Conservatives more often than not, and trying to handwave why they really truly are totes different when they’re being about the weakest counterargument in history.

  • vsm

    The line was ad-libbed by Grant, who likely knew the word’s subcultural meaning, being a suave man of the world and likely bisexual himself. Seen like that, it’s something of an Easter egg that also allows one to interpret Grant’s mild-mannered professor character in new ways.

    There’s a vaguely similar scene in The Maltese Falcon, where Humphrey Bogart calls Elisha Cook Jr. a gunsel. The censors assumed it meant cheap hood or something, when the actual meaning was closer to “bottom”. It’s a lot more mean-spirited than Bringing Up Baby.

  • Kiba

    According to my grandmother, who was born in 1930, gay was used to mean homosexual. She had a gay teacher and gay was the term that was used to describe him as, well, gay. It makes me think that if she knew it could mean homosexual while attending school in rural Southern Arizona in the 30s then it couldn’t have been that uncommon a meaning.  

  • vsm

    I’m not sure. Every article about the word’s evolution I’ve ever seen suggests the current meaning didn’t enter the mainstream until the 1950’s at the earliest. Maybe her town really was ahead of its time, or she might misremember. It’s not difficult to forget how a word was used more than seventy years ago.

  • Tricksterson

    Well, in their public personas at least (I know little of Bogart’s private life and nothing of Grants)  Bogart was a much harder case than Grant.

  • Kiba

    Maybe her town really was ahead of its time,

    Doubtful. Small, rural, mostly Mormon place. Calling it a town is being generous. It was really, really small. Hell, it was still really, really small when I lived there in the late 70s and early 80s. You actually had to cross the bridge and go into the next town to shop*, use the post office, go to school, catch the Greyhound/train. 

    In addition to its original and continuing senses of “merry, lively” and “bright or showy,” gay  has hadvarious senses dealing with sexual conduct since the 17th century. A gay woman  was a prostitute, a gay man  a womanizer, a gay house  a brothel. This sexual world included homosexuals too, and gay  as an adjective meaning “homosexual” may go back to the late 1930s.

    That’s from dictionary.com’s usage note. So it’s not unlikely that she is actually remembering correctly. Someone above mentioned Miss Furr and Miss Skeene by Gertrude Stein which was published in  1922 but was written in 1909-1911 in which she uses gay 136 times and which some sources cite as the first time that word was used in literature to mean homosexual. 

    So mainstream or not it seems likely that the word gay meaning homosexual was not uncommon before the 1950s. 

    *All we had was a gas station/convenience store.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    From my viewing, the romantic comedies of Grant’s day had not only better writing, but also better appeal for both sexes. The studios today wrongly assume that the genre’s appeal is limited to women, and they write accordingly. Likewise, the action genre isn’t inherently a male one, or one for 12-year-old boys, Hollywood merely shapes those movies that way.

    Back in the day they also knew how to put a man in a nice suit.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Britain’s Conservatives are to the left of America’s Democrats, remember.

    Pretty much every left wing party in the world is to the left of American’s Democrats :)