A startling phone call from an Alabama segregationist governor

Michael D. Waters
Michael D. Waters

Today’s guest columnist is Michael D. Waters.

Less than one month after Fob James was first inaugurated Governor of Alabama in January 1979, I answered my home telephone on a Saturday afternoon and a friendly voice on the other side said:  “Hello, is this Mike Waters, the governor’s legal adviser?”

I responded, “Yes, it is.”  The voice then said in a friendly and polite manner, “Mike, this is George Wallace, how are you?”

In 1979 and 1980 I served as Governor Fob James’ legal adviser following his election in 1978.  I encountered many challenges, dealt with difficult situations, and interacted with fascinating people, but few of the experiences I had matched my direct involvement with former Governor George C. Wallace who approached me for a favor.

One of the first acts Fob James undertook during his first week as governor was to direct by executive order that his cabinet members not retain in their departments any employee who had not yet attained vested rights under the state merit system.  Those unvested employees could be dismissed for any reason, and, in an effort to save taxpayer money, the new governor wanted to reduce the state payroll.  As a result, the state newspapers reported that approximately 600 state employees were to be dismissed.

On the telephone, former Governor Wallace assured me that he completely agreed with the governor’s decision to save money.  He noted, however, that several employees to be dismissed suffered from various physical disabilities, and he hoped that Governor James had not intended to dismiss them.  He asked me to speak to the governor about that issue.

I told him that I would be glad to talk to the governor on the following Monday.

I went on to tell Governor Wallace that my own father had been disabled for 28 years, having broken his back in an automobile accident while serving in the army at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina in 1951.  I said to Governor Wallace:  “I am personally interested in this issue, since my father is a paraplegic as a result of an injury suffered while in the army.”

Suddenly, the voice on the line changed perceptively:  “Oh, do I know your father?”

I responded, “No, sir, but you have met him when you campaigned for governor over the years because he is a radio announcer in Cullman, and I think he has interviewed you in the past.”

Wallace replied, “Well, I am delighted to know that, and I know you will understand this issue.”

Wallace asked me to call him at his office on Monday after I talked to Governor James.  He then thanked me and before hanging up said, “Please be sure to say hello to your mom and dad for me, and tell them I am thinking of them.”

I was startled at the voice on the other line.  Receiving a call at home from George C. Wallace, the man who had stood in the schoolhouse door, the politician who had thoroughly dominated Alabama for 15 years, and the public figure I had considered to be responsible for much of the difficulties Alabama had experienced in coming to grips with its segregationist past, was surprising.

I was also struck at the movement in Wallace’s tone of voice when he heard that my father was a paraplegic.  In his effort to seek a favor from the new administration, he had been very polite and solicitous prior to hearing that piece of information.  When he learned about my father, however, the tone of his entire voice shifted to one of empathy toward me and my family.

On the following Monday, I summarized the conversation to Governor James who said that he certainly did not want anyone with a disability to lose a state job.  He asked me to call Governor Wallace and relay that message.

When I called the Wallace office, the receptionist put me through to the former governor who stated as his first words:  “Mike, it was sure kind of you to take my call on Saturday night.”  I informed him that Governor James would exempt state employees with disabilities from the lay-off.

Governor Wallace replied, “I knew you would understand.  Now, I want you to be sure to say hello to your mother and dad for me.”  Once again that sincere voice reached out through the telephone.

At the time of that conversation, my father was ill with cancer, and he died about five months later.  By coincidence, about one month after my father’s death, I saw Governor Wallace in the hallway of the state capitol building.  I introduced myself.

He immediately said, “Mike, how is your mother doing?  Please tell her I’m thinking of her.”

I had not mentioned my father’s illness when I had talked to Governor Wallace about the state employee issue, but I sensed that he must have heard about my father’s death, because he only referred to my mother, and his tone of voice was the tone one hears when a person is expressing sympathy over a death of a loved one.

In the early summer of 1980 I decided to leave the governor’s staff and move to Mobile to practice law.  That decision was noted in the Montgomery paper.  Immediately I received a call from George Wallace, Jr., who stated that his father had seen the article and wanted me to stop by his home for a visit.  I said I would be happy to do so.

Two days later, my wife and I arrived at the Wallace home around 7:00 p.m.

We were shown into his bedroom where Governor Wallace sat upright in bed smoking a cigar.  I thanked him for inviting us to his house.

He responded by saying that he was glad to have us in his home, and he then turned immediately to my wife and said, “You know, Mike helped me last year on a matter involving state employees with disabilities.  His father and I were good friends.”

In a little more than a year, Wallace’s relationship with my father had undergone a dramatic metamorphosis, from a telephone query about whether he knew my father to a warm pronouncement that he and my dad had been friends.  The former governor went on to give me some advice about practicing law and politics.

George Wallace was a politician who had influenced every political action in the state of Alabama for a total of 20 years.  His success was founded, in large measure, upon a stark and shameless base of racism, contempt for federal power, and a fear of outsiders that, since the days of Reconstruction, seemed all too characteristic of the “South.”  Yet, after his shooting in 1972, Wallace began to exhibit a more moderate form of public policy, and the rhetoric of his past dimmed.  He won a fourth term as Governor in 1982, succeeding Fob James.

Wallace’s invitation to visit him at home served as a metaphor for his political prowess.  His call to me for assistance with state employees with disabilities produced an unexpected common thread.  He had found someone who had personal experience with people with disabilities, and he not only utilized that to press his point, but he also had a genuine interest that mimicked that of a personal friend.

I could see how he had mesmerized thousands of supporters, but I also wondered about the lost possibilities.  What if he had used that extraordinary ability to navigate Alabama through the 1960s to minimize rather than exploit the racial tensions of the South.  Of course, asking that is futile, for had Wallace taken a different path, he would not have been “George Wallace.”

Michael D. Waters is a lawyer at Jones Walker, Birmingham, Alabama.  A native of Cullman, Alabama, he is a graduate of Duke University (1972), Oxford University England (1975) (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the University of Alabama School of Law (1977).  He has recently published a book, “Governor Fob James of Alabama, Making Headway on Constitutional Rights 1979-1980, A Legal Adviser’s Perspective,” Rocky Heights Print and Binding, 2021.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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2 thoughts on “A startling phone call from an Alabama segregationist governor”

  1. While I understand you wondering if Wallace could/would have made a difference if he had used his empathetic skills, for lack of a better term, to navigate Alabama in a different manner, I wonder if he would have been elected in trying to do so. I do not think the Alabama of the early 60’s would have willing to vote for that Wallace.

  2. I lived during that era . When traveling I notice communities that are oriental / Asian and little Italy or May be little Cuba . These areas are segregation . I like these areas the food and the culture , I enjoy all types of people . Have we been sold or forced into one shoe fits all ? After forty years of integration are we better off today verses then . Are we losing our culture ? Is our education better today ? Just asking and moving forward it looks like folks want to live together with there culture and families seems to me that is what makes us stronger . Just asking for positive input

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