I will never be out-n**gered again” was the vow George Wallace made after losing to John Patterson the 1958 Democratic primary for governor of Alabama. And so he wasn’t. The very next year, his sights already set on second run for governor in 1962, Wallace proclaimed:
There’s some people who’ve gone over the state and said, “Well, George Wallace has talked too strong about segregation.” Now let me ask you this: how in the name of common sense can you be too strong about it? You’re either for it or you’re against it. There’s not any middle ground as I know of.
The strategy of playing the race card, by then a Democratic Party staple (as Bruce Bartlett notes in detailed fashion in Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past), delivered the political victory Wallace sought. By January of 1963, George Corley Wallace was being inaugurated as the new Democratic Governor of Alabama, famously declaring in his inaugural address:
In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, 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.
Wallace made his name synonymous with segregation, never missing an opportunity to appeal to white voters whether executing policy as governor or campaigning on the stump. It was one of Wallace’s state troopers who shot to death Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights demonstrator, in Marion, Alabama. A few days later, on what is now known to history as “Bloody Sunday” — March 7, 1965 — civil rights protesters led by a young activist named John Lewis sought to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on a 55-mile walk to the state capital of Montgomery. They didn’t get far.
Governor Wallace had his state troopers waiting for them, and along with local law enforcement the troopers charged the demonstrators, beating the living hell out of them, John Lewis included. The incident spurred the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — itself a re-do of the Republican-passed Fifteenth Amendment that was ratified in 1870, 95 years earlier and repeatedly ignored by elected Democrats.
Wallace entered several Democratic presidential primaries in 1964, scoring large vote totals in Maryland and Wisconsin. Four years later he set up his own independent party, campaigning on blatant appeals to race. The Washington Post noted in Wallace’s obituary that he won “nearly 10 million votes, about 13 percent of the total, in a campaign in which he vilified blacks….He carried five Southern states and won 46 electoral votes.” Four years after that he ran again for the Democrats’ presidential nomination, winning the Post observed, “…primaries in North Carolina, Michigan, Maryland, Florida, Tennessee and Florida. He no longer could be dismissed as a mere regional candidate.” The Wallace campaign ended when he was shot by Arthur Bremer during an appearance at a Laurel, Maryland, shopping center.
This past Sunday the New York Times front page headlined that there is someone else who has decided to play the race card for political gain. That person? John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia for more than a quarter century. The hero of Bloody Sunday, who once fought for an America where, as championed by his friend Dr. Martin Luther King, a colorblind America.
Headlines the Times:
At Risk in Senate, Democrats Seek to Rally Blacks
Below that, the paper has subheads that read:
Move to Channel Anger
Invoking Ferguson and Threats to Impeach as Motivators
The article says, in part:
With their Senate majority imperiled, Democrats are trying to mobilize African-Americans outraged by the shooting in Ferguson, Mo., to help them retain control of at least one chamber of Congress for President Obama’s final two years in office.…
Mr. Lewis is headlining efforts to mobilize black voters in several states with competitive Senate races, including Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina. The drive is being organized by the Congressional Black Caucus, in coordination with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Other steps, such as recruiting N.B.A. players to help register more African-Americans, are also underway.
Charming, yes? Not to mention thick with irony.
Here is a man who became a genuine America hero opposing the racial politics of George Wallace, literally being beaten bloody as he faced Wallace’s state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge — and now he is playing the race card for political profit. Lewis and Democrats are determined to parlay the tragic death of Michael Brown into a political stick that can be used to keep control of the U.S. Senate.
Question: What if some white politician turned up in Orange, Texas, where a black cop, off-duty at the time, shot an unarmed white ex-Marine named James Whitehead — and got off, as the above link indicates, “scot free”? Whitehead, as related in this Texas Observer story, was trying to exchange a part at a local store when he lost his temper with the clerk. The off-duty cop tried to calm the situation, with Whitehead allegedly letting loose a string of racial and anti-gay epithets. His physical conduct towards the cop is described in terms not unlike those seen in that video of Michael Brown stealing cigars — a moment of attempted physical intimidation. At which point the cop pulled a gun and shot Whitehead to death. The officer was suspended, and eventually left the force with a settlement, although he was never sent to jail.
Now what would be the reaction if a story appeared on the front page of the New York Times, detailing Republicans’ efforts to use the tragedy for political gain, to mobilize outraged white voters? The outcry would be huge — and fully justified.
It’s more than past time that Republican politicians take on the issue directly — and call out Senate Democrats and Congressman John Lewis for their abysmal, quite deliberate strategy of playing the race card.