On May 15, 1972, the man Martin Luther King Jr. once called the “most dangerous racist in America” stepped up to the podium at a suburban Washington, D.C. shopping center. The governor of Alabama and an ardent segregationist, George Wallace was in Laurel, Maryland, campaigning to become the Democratic nominee for president. He fired up the crowd by railing against busing and the elite, continuing his long-standing tactic of stirring up fears among “forgotten” white Americans.
As Wallace shook hands with attendees after the speech, gunshots rang out, and screams filled the parking lot. The governor grabbed his stomach and fell to the ground. His second wife, Cornelia, threw herself over his bloody body. Two men seized the shooter, a fame-seeking loner from Milwaukee named Arthur Bremer. Shocked onlookers crowded around as reporters began relaying news of the assassination attempt across the nation.
“You knew it was probably going to happen at some point, but you pray every day that it doesn’t,” says Wallace’s daughter Peggy Wallace Kennedy, who was 22 years old at the time of the shooting. “It sounds terrible to say, but it was almost a relief when it happened. Obviously, I was so happy he survived.”
The attack marked a turning point in the life of America’s most notorious segregationist, a man who had sent armed state troopers to attack civil rights marchers and ordered police to close down the state’s public schools rather than submit to federally ordered integration. Shot five times, Wallace was paralyzed from the waist down. Chronic pain and complications stemming from the shooting prevented him from fulfilling his presidential ambitions, though he did mount a final bid for the nomination in 1976.
Instead of ascending to the United States’ highest office, Wallace continued his career in state politics—and, in an unexpected turn of events, spent his remaining years seeking forgiveness from the Black community for the hatred and division he’d sown at the height of the civil rights movement.
Fifty years after his shooting, Wallace’s tangled legacy remains the subject of intense debate. Some observers say the governor deserves forgiveness because he made amends with the very people he had wronged. (Civil rights icon John Lewis, for his part, publicly forgave Wallace in a 1998 New York Times op-ed.) But others see Wallace as an irredeemable villain.
“When I was growing up in Alabama, George Wallace was considered the devil,” says Maurice Hobson, a historian at Georgia State University, where he specializes in African American studies. “There’s no excuse for what he did. And the fact that he could use segregation as an opportunity [to gain political power] made him even more evil.”
Born in Clio, Alabama, in 1919, Wallace grew up poor in rural Barbour County. He was attracted to politics from a young age, serving as a page in the Alabama Senate during his high school years. Following a stint in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, he briefly worked as a state assistant attorney general before winning a seat in the Alabama legislature in 1946. He spent the next six years as a state representative, then shifted gears to campaign for a circuit court judgeship in the state’s Third Judicial District.
During Wallace’s six years as a judge, civil rights activists began challenging Jim Crow laws across the South. In 1954, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools; two years later, an act of resistance by Rosa Parks sparked a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that led the Supreme Court to rule segregated seating unconstitutional. Over the next decade, Alabama became a center of the civil rights struggle, hosting the Freedom Riders’ bus trips and a 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, among other key events in the movement’s history.
Amid all this change, Wallace set his sights on the governor’s office. Presenting himself as a new kind of Democrat—one backed by the NAACP—he ran in 1958 on a platform that avoided discussing race. But he lost the Democratic primary to state attorney general John M. Patterson, who had the support of the Ku Klux Klan and made his opponent “look like a milquetoast moderate,” according to the New York Times. As election aide Seymore Trammell recounted in the 2000 PBS documentary “George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” Wallace learned from Patterson’s vitriolic emphasis on race, invoking a racial slur in his declaration that he would never be outwitted again.
Four years later, Wallace mounted his second bid for governor. This time around, he positioned himself as a champion of segregation, feeding on white voters’ fears of the burgeoning civil rights movement. Buoyed by the anti-Black speeches he’d delivered on the campaign trail, Wallace earned 96 percent of the vote—a figure inflated by the widespread suppression of Black voters in Alabama at the time. In his January 1963 inauguration speech (written by campaign strategist Asa Carter, a local Klan leader), Wallace affirmed his commitment to white supremacy, proclaiming, “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.”
Six months into his term, Wallace gained attention across the country by putting his bigoted words into action. On June 11, 1963, when Black students James Hood and Vivian Malone attempted to enroll at the University of Alabama as part of the federal government’s push to integrate schools, Wallace staged a confrontation with U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach in the doorway of a campus auditorium. With TV cameras rolling, the governor refused to allow the students to enter; instead, he berated Katzenbach, defending the “rights, privileges, and sovereignty of the state of Alabama” against the tyranny of the federal government. Only after the Alabama National Guard stepped in did Wallace finally yield.
“He’ll always be known for his stand in the schoolhouse door,” says Peggy. “… That put him on the wrong side of history by using hate and fear.”
Wallace continued his rise to national prominence with an unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nominee in 1964. Running on a tough-on-crime, pro-segregation stance, the politician appealed to his base by translating their racism into more palatable terms. “A racist is one who despises someone because of his color,” he told a reporter, “and an Alabama segregationist is one who conscientiously believes that it is in the best interest of Negro and white to have a separate education and social order.”
Hobson, who is Black, says that Wallace was “waging war against people like me.” He adds, “There’s a notion among Black people that Alabama is known for two things: football and racism, and they do both of them very well. And a lot of that [racism] is attributed to George Wallace.”
During his time in office, Wallace transformed the all-white Alabama State Patrol into state troopers who wore uniforms emblazoned with Confederate flag patches. He also authorized the Sovereignty Commission, which spied on residents who advocated for civil rights. In the words of the Encyclopedia of Alabama, he became known for his “total focus on campaigning, at the expense of running the state.”
Term limits kept Wallace from seeking reelection in 1966, so he had his wife, Lurleen, run for office in his place. Lurleen emerged victorious, and her husband served as Alabama’s de facto governor until her death due to cancer in 1968.
That same year, Wallace ran for president as a third-party candidate. With the nation in turmoil amid the unpopular Vietnam War, uprisings in inner cities and ongoing civil rights struggles, Wallace’s defiant, segregationist platform attracted support from working-class voters who felt abandoned by the government and blamed many of the country’s troubles on the unprincipled elite.
Modeling a campaign strategy later emulated by Republican Donald Trump, Wallace stoked the anger and resentment felt by many white Americans, sowing division not only between white Americans and people of color but also between classes. “[Race was] the drumbeat behind the whole thing, but this was just part of a growing alienation on the part of working-class Americans,” Dan T. Carter, author of The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism and the Transformation of American Politics, told the Atlantic in 2020. “Even in the 1960s, there was already this sense that somehow they were being abandoned.”
Though Wallace managed to win five Southern states (and 13.5 percent of the popular vote), Republican Richard Nixon ultimately claimed the presidency. Wallace only returned to the campaign trail two years later, running for Alabama governor in 1968. During this bid for office, he built on his earlier racist rhetoric, releasing a TV ad that showed a white girl with seven African American boys. “Wake Up Alabama! Blacks vow to take over,” warned an accompanying onscreen message. The former governor won in a landslide.
By the time he ran for president in 1972, this time as a Democrat rather than an independent, Wallace had become a national symbol of rage and hate. Then, he almost died.
“The shooting changed his entire life,” said Peggy in a 2020 episode of the podcast Reckon. While Wallace was recuperating at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland, fellow presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm—the first African American woman to run for president—went out of her way to visit him despite pushback from her staff. “I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone,” Chisholm reportedly told Wallace. In reply, she later recalled, he “cried and cried.”
According to Peggy, “It was after her visit that [Wallace] started to change.” Before becoming paralyzed, her father was constantly on the move. Losing the ability to use his legs forced him to “sit still and reflect on his politics and his own mortality,” she says. “He had a real awakening, a change of heart.”
Previously a lapsed Methodist, Wallace became a born-again Christian and, beginning in 1979, began to publicly seek the forgiveness of Alabama’s Black community. In 1982, for instance, he addressed a Birmingham meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership conference, saying, “I did stand, with a majority of white people, for the separation of the schools. But that was wrong, and that will never come back again.”
Many of Alabama’s African American residents forgave Wallace. But as Hobson points out, they will never forget.
“This is truly about white privilege,” Hobson says. “When it becomes convenient for George Wallace, then he apologizes. But he made it seem okay to mistreat Black people in any kind of way. That was extremely damning.”
In Peggy’s view, her father asked for forgiveness in true humility. “He showed he had the capacity to change,” she says. “I hope history would define him as that person because not everyone has that capacity to change.”
In 1989, Wallace decided to run for governor again. He promised Black voters more jobs and more equality—and he ended up winning the race with 90 percent of the African American vote.
During his final term as governor, Wallace appointed more than 160 Black members of state governing boards and worked to double the number of African Americans registered to vote. He continued his public pleas of contrition; upon Wallace’s death in 1998 at age 79, Congressman Lewis, who’d been beaten by state troopers while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a 1965 civil rights march, publicly forgave him.
“I could tell that he was a changed man; he was engaged in a campaign to seek forgiveness from the same African Americans he had oppressed,” wrote Lewis for the New York Times. “He acknowledged his bigotry and assumed responsibility for the harm he had caused.”
The congressman continued, “When I met George Wallace, I had to forgive him, because to do otherwise—to hate him—would only perpetuate the evil system we sought to destroy.”
More recently, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in police custody and the wave of protests against systemic racism that followed, Wallace’s legacy as a segregationist has again come to the fore. Beginning in June 2020, Alabama activists and students began calling to remove his name from colleges, universities, roads and other state markers.
Shreya Pokhrel, a 2020 graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was one of the petitioners who called on school administrators to remove the governor’s name from the campus’ physical education building. From the moment she’d stepped on campus in 2016, says Pokhrel, she’d heard students complain that the university heralded its diversity and inclusion while maintaining the Wallace building’s name.
Pokhrel’s renaming push actually predates Floyd’s killing, stemming from a student-led effort to establish a civil rights trail on campus. In February 2021, after over a year of campaigning, the university officially changed the name of the red-brick George Wallace Physical Education Building to simply the Physical Education Building.
“College campuses are the center point of learning and discussion that should be pushing society and intellect forward,” Pohkrel says. “There are so many other incredible people that could be honored instead of George Wallace.”
Peggy supported the removal of her father’s name as a meaningful change for the university community. But Hobson, a graduate of Alabama and a former football player for the school, has an entirely different viewpoint. His father was an administrator at George Corley Wallace Community College in Selma, and his sister continues to work there today. “I do not believe his name should be taken off those buildings or others,” Hobson says. “Erasing names erases history and lets them go and rest in peace.”
Instead, the historian suggests adding Lewis’ name next to Wallace’s. “This way it forces the conversation around civil rights,” he says. “Because we should never let their souls rest.”
Peggy, meanwhile, has reckoned with her father’s legacy by striving to correct his wrongs. In 2009, she met with Lewis and held his hand as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, commemorating the landmark 1965 march for African American voting rights. In 2015, she spoke at the 50th anniversary of the march.
“John taught me the lessons of unconditional love, compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation,” Peggy says. “That’s exactly what our nation needs today.”