I had a long-distance relationship with the infamous George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama. It was born in the civil rights protests of the 60s, some of which I had witnessed. It developed during the 1968 campaign for president and ended during a conversation I had with a member of Congress in the 1990s. I never met him or saw Wallace, but I bore witness to the phenomenon that he was.
I will recount this relationship to help explain the meaning of systemic racism, which far too many people deny exists today. Instead, they turn our attention to individual racists. They proclaim that such racists are declining in numbers even in light of the rise of white supremacist organizations. They agree that we should root these racists out of positions of authority such as the police and the military. But social institutions themselves are not racist.
It is personal, not systemic.
I became very interested in civil rights as a tenth grader in 1963. In June, I watched Governor Wallace symbolically stand at the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to block the registration of black students. He quickly yielded to federal authority when confronted by marshals. But he could proclaim that he lived up to his campaign promise to keep segregation forever.
In August 1963, on the day before my mother and I were returning to Guam, I watched the civil rights march in Washington D.C. I heard all of the stirring speeches and watched the spectacle. Of course, I was enthralled by Martin Luther King, but I also took note of the more edgy remarks given by John Lewis. I would later learn much more about that young man.
After graduating from high school, I went to college in California. It was during the aftermath of the Watts riots (insurrection?) in 1965. Along with a few other students, I answered the call to engage in a little bit of “do-gooderism.” I volunteered to tutor elementary school students at East 109th Street Elementary School in South Los Angeles. I learned more than I taught. I attended some demonstrations but mostly as a spectator although I joined an impromptu walk out on the Cal State LA campus the day after King was assassinated.
In that same year, Wallace ran for president under the American Independent Party with Curtis Lemay as his running mate. Lemay was an Air Force general and the architect of “firebombing” Japan during World War II from his headquarters at Harmon Field, Guam. Lemay was more worried about being called a racist than being an advocate of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. As it turned out, his advocacy of bombing hurt the campaign more than charges of racism. Neither Wallace nor Lemay would ever consent to the label of “racist.”
Out of curiosity, I responded to an advertisement in the college paper. I wrote to the Wallace for President Campaign and I received all kinds of campaign material and a membership card, which I was supposed to fill in. I never did.
The campaign material was pretty standard and actually the first time I read advice about how to talk to hostile voters. At least, they knew what they were up against.
Wallace could be an entertaining candidate. He proclaimed that protestors (like me) were unfamiliar with four letter words like “soap” and “work.” He was more popular among young men than Republican Nixon or Democrat Humphrey. There were some of those on campus.
Wallace did win some southern states. In the process, I read a lot about his biography. He tapped into a combined strain of racism and economic populism, which seemed authentic to many in the working class. His biography stressed that although he was for segregation as an institution, he was personally always courteous with all kinds of people and tried to help the black community in his own way.
Some 25 years later, I was in the House of Representatives and I became close friends with a number of African-American congressmen. I had many conversations with them and some of the figures in the civil rights struggle came to life during these learning sessions for me. I met John Lewis and had conversations with him about everything going on from 1965 Selma to 1993 Washington D.C.
He had his annual pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama, the scene of his beating as he tried to initiate the voting rights march some 55 years ago. My son Raphael and I joined him and a handful of others in marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This was preceded by visiting Birmingham, the site of the 16th street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls.
The visit was completed with a tour of Montgomery including Martin Luther King’s Dexter Avenue church which was just down the street from the State Capitol. That building continued to fly the Confederate flag until 1992. It reminded me that these people lived close to each other. Things were personal. The church and the state capitol were within walking distance.
Years later, Wallace would address the Dexter Avenue congregation and asked for forgiveness for any pain he had caused. That was powerful. But for me, one of the most interesting conversations I had was with an African-American congressman who had been in the Alabama State Legislature during one of Wallace’s later terms as governor. He said that he and a few other African-American legislative members were called into a conversation with Wallace as he was clearly reaching the end of the line. He apologized to them and tried to convince them that his segregationist past was a political ploy and did not reflect him personally. I guess he didn’t hate African-Americans, he just wanted to keep them in their place.
This is easily dismissed as a deathbed conversion. Of course, it is still a conversion of sorts. But it reminds me of so many current elected officials who proclaim sanctimoniously that they don’t have a racist bone in their body, but the policies they pursue tell us otherwise. Racism is not just a personal affliction.
It can also be in the rules, regulations and laws as well. It can be manifested in the taken-for-granted behavior of our social institutions.
As the Wallace example suggests, it is also in the eager manipulation of political leaders who appeal to our worst instincts. When a leader inspires hate, distrust and resentment, they are manipulating our emotions for their own purposes. Once they take us down this road, we will readily believe their lies and repeat their misrepresentations.
My relationship with Wallace tells me that while racism may not be personal, it can be systemic.
Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org