By Steve Flowers
As George Wallace presumably faded into the sunset, Fob James took the reigns of Alabama state government in January 1979. James’ inauguration was a somewhat strange event, as Alabamians were used to a Wallace being sworn in as governor every fourth January since 1963. It had been 20 years since someone other than George or Lurleen Wallace had taken the oath on the steps of the Capitol where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederacy.
Fob’s quixotic journey and inauguration seemed out of place. It was as his slogan said, “a new beginning.” Alabamians were eager to find out what their new leader had on tap for Alabama. It reminds me of a movie made in the early 1970s called “The Candidate.” Robert Redford starred as an unknown candidate that an expert political handler elected to a California senate seat. The candidate, Redford, came completely out of the blue. His greatest assets were he was unknown, inexperienced and had no baggage. At the conclusion of the movie Redford wins but then looks at the genius campaign guru who had elected him and says, “What do I do now?”
Having never served or been around state government, Fob was clueless as to how to be governor. It was analogous to taking Bill Baxley or Albert Brewer and putting them in charge of Fob’s Opelika barbell factory. He stumbled out of the gate, quickly made enemies, and developed the nickname “Fumbling Fob,” which he supposedly earned earlier at Auburn.
Fob had a dismal four-year term. No group hated him more than state employees. He also had a knack for ignoring and alienating those who worked on his campaign and supported him financially. George Wallace always said that if you can’t help your friends get state contracts and business then who are you going to help. When asked by the press why Wallace gave a state job to a friend, crony, or contributor, Wallace would candidly reply, “Who do you think I ought to give it to, my enemies?” Wallace believed in the old political saying, “You dance with those who brung you,” while Fob believed in ignoring those who brought him to the dance.
It seemed folks were tiring of this new type of businessman novice governor. Fob sensed his unpopularity and decided not to run for a second term. It was assumed when Wallace left the governor’s mansion in 1978 he would never return to what had become his home. Most people figured Wallace never owned a private residence because the state governor’s mansion had been his home for so long. Fob chose not to live there because it was not good enough for him, which Alabamians resented. Wallace decided that if Fob wasn’t going to use the mansion he would just move back in. After all, it had already been equipped for his wheelchair before he left. Wallace assumed his name was on the deed and one of the many papers he signed was his homestead exemption. So in 1982 Wallace ran for governor and won, making it his fifth term. It’s doubtful anyone will ever come close to this record in Alabama politics.
The most illuminating and amazing story behind Wallace’s historic 1982 victory was that he won because of the black vote. The majority of black voters in Alabama voted for George Wallace and elected him governor for his last term. His victory over Lt. Gov. George McMillan was razor thin. When the votes were tallied it was obvious Wallace won because of the amazing turnout of African Americans supporting him.
Earlier in the year Wallace had gone to the historic black church on Dexter Avenue, just down from the Capitol, and tearfully and genuinely asked for forgiveness for his past racism. The blacks forgave him and made him their governor. He in turn rewarded them. No Alabama governor before or since has worked as hard to make black Alabamians a part of state government.
Wallace was incapacitated quite a bit during his last term. The medication for the bullet wounds made him prematurely senile and out of touch. There was no way he could have run for a sixth term. I was there in 1986 when Wallace sat in the old House chamber and tearfully said “I bid you a fond adieu.” It was fitting that he closed out his career in that old House chamber, where he had begun his legendary political career 40 years earlier. It was in 1946 that he arrived as a freshman legislator from Barbour County. As 1986 ended, it was his last hurrah.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.