Politics as a Dirty Shame
The four dirtiest political campaigns in Alabama history were governor's races stoked by the most violent ingredient in Southern politics.
Left: Bourbon Democrat Gov. Thomas Jones. Right: Jeffersonian Democrat, Commissioner of Agriculture Reuben Kolb.
The Big Steal of 1892
As nasty as politics gets, at its worst you can always count on somebody saying it was worse among our forefathers. According to their detractors, Martin van Buren wore women’s underwear, John Adams was “hideous hermaphroditical,” James Buchanan couldn’t even hang himself right and Abe Lincoln had stinky feet.
In Alabama history, the governor’s race of 1892 was our forefathers at their worst. Reconstruction had been rolling back for almost 20 years, busted by a Jim Crow alliance of Black Belt planters and New South industrialists. They were called Bourbon Democrats (a reference to the French patricians who reclaimed power after Napoleon).
Thomas Jones, a Montgomery lawyer elected governor in 1890, was 100-proof Bourbon. A Confederate Major who had ridden with Stonewall Jackson, he continued his military career with the Alabama State Troops, including a role in the Election Riots of 1874, which put the whip hand to Reconstruction and black Republicans in Alabama.
In the 1892 governor’s race, a populist alliance got behind Reuben Kolb, the Commissioner of Agriculture, to challenge Jones.
Kolb was the nominee of the newly formed Jeffersonian Democrats, with support from a range of populist organizations, including the Farmers Alliance and the Populist Party—mainly small farmers, white labor and what was left of the Republican and black electorate after the Reconstruction backlash.
Jones and the Bourbons ran a campaign of wide-open election fraud. Ballot boxes were stolen. Officially announced results were hastily withdrawn and a reversal soon reported. Bribery and intimidation muscled black voters—more than 50 percent of the population in the 20 Black Belt counties—to vote for the party of white supremacy.
Out of a strong turnout of 243,037 votes, Jones squeaked out a re-election by 11,445 votes. Outside of the Black Belt, Kolb led Jones by 15,399 votes.
Kolb knew the election had been stolen, but he had no recourse. There were no provisions in state law for contesting an election.
Bourbon control over elections became even stronger with passage of the 1901 Constitution, which set up property qualifications and other barriers to limit voting by blacks and poor whites.
Lost Cause Watershed, 1958
The 1958 Democratic primary for governor was a watershed for the race issue. Four years after Brown v. the Board of Education, the South was trembling at the inevitability of justice.
“It was there and had to live out its time,” says former Gov. John Patterson—“it” being racial discrimination. “This was something we had to live through. There was no immediate solution to it. Frank Johnson and the federal judges and the NAACP and the Tuskegee Civic Association ultimately brought it to an end.”
In 1958, Patterson—now 91 years old—was a 34-year-old attorney general running for governor on a record of keeping down the blacks. The year before he made headlines by successfully suing the NAACP for not properly filing incorporation papers, a ploy that kept one of the NAACP’s largest state organizations snarled in the courts and scrambling to keep membership lists out of the hands of the state. It was a delaying tactic, rear guard harassment.
“I was the guy fighting the battle, albeit a losing battle,” says Patterson.
Starting with a pack of over 12 candidates, the Democratic primary shook out to a dead heat between Patterson, George Wallace, a circuit judge from Barbour County, and south Alabama businessman Jimmy Faulkner. Faulkner had the early lead and endorsement of all the big city newspapers, but two weeks before the election, it narrowed to Patterson and Wallace. Patterson won by 37,000 votes, but not enough to avoid a runoff. Wallace was enraged by the size of the lead.
“The first primary was relatively quiet, as far as any slinging of mud,” says Patterson. But that changed when Wallace came in number two and “got pretty nasty about me. He said ‘I’m going to take the gloves off,’ and he went after me.”
Wallace and the Montgomery Advertiser, his cheerleader, accused Patterson of having a pact with the Ku Klux Klan. Reporters tracked him on the issue every step of the campaign, “particularly Bob Ingram, star reporter for the Advertiser, following me all day long,” says Patterson.
Patterson refused to comment on the issue, and it didn’t hurt him. He beat Wallace handily, and it so anguished Wallace he snatched up the banner of the Lost Cause. “I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again,” is how Wallace put it, according to biographer Marshall Frady.
According to Patterson, KKK Grand Dragon Robert Shelton walked into Patterson headquarters in the Molton Hotel in Birmingham and offered the campaign a mailing list of Klan members and asked for a letter from Patterson seeking support.
“I didn’t know Shelton. He wanted a form letter, and we authorized him to send it out. I was never a member of the Klan. Don’t believe in it. Don’t like it. But here was a guy and his group who wanted to support me for governor. I appreciated his support and that was it. I never submitted to do anything he wanted and didn’t like him and his crowd. George demanded I denounce the Klan. But George had substantial Klan support, several klaverns, one in Anniston. My feeling was, if folks come in and want to support you, if you don’t commit yourself to anything wrong to get their vote…. I just wanted to win the election, just like George.”
1962: Wild to Be Wreckage Forever
1962 was George Wallace’s comeback with a vengeance year. In the Democratic primary for governor—up against moderates Ryan deGraffenried, a Tuscaloosa lawyer, and former governor Jim Folsom—Wallace strutted his new persona of banty demagogue.
With the exception of one suspected stunt pulled on his old mentor Folsom, the dirtiness that distinguished 1962 was all above board. It was a trick on white people and black people both—race baiting with a bullhorn.
“I shall refuse to abide by any such illegal federal court order to the point of standing at the schoolhouse door,” Wallace promised repeatedly, anticipating a federal court order to integrate state universities. “Stand in the schoolhouse door” became a much-anticipated refrain, as did “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He ragged the “sissy britches in Alabama who say we’ve got to conform to mixing the races in the schools.”
Sissy britches? As insults go, it sounds pretty sissy itself these days, but it sparked knee-slapping chortles in 1962. It was especially aimed at well-dressed deGraffenried. For Folsom—no sissy by any stretch—Wallace sniped at his drinking. “I promise you I won’t serve one drop of alcohol in the Governor’s mansion!” Wallace exclaimed, referring to the time Folsom hosted black Congressman Adam Clayton Powell in the state mansion and served him state scotch.
Folsom hoped to stage a coup on election eve with a 30-minute TV documentary. The film canister mysteriously disappeared and Folsom had to extemporize well beyond his planned intro—filmed live with family members in a Montgomery studio. He couldn’t remember the names of his children and stammered and lurched through an impromptu harangue of Wallace and deGraffenried as “just a bunch of me-too candidates: ‘Me too! Me too! Me too! Me too!’”
It became known as Folsom’s “Tweety Bird speech,” and many Folsom diehards still swear that legendary Big Jim must have been slipped a Mickey.
deGraffenried nudged out Folsom for the runoff, and Wallace demolished deGraffenried.
On inauguration day, Wallace continued on his rhetorical roll: “We will tolerate their boot in our face no longer….Segregation forever!”
George Wallace’s speeches in the 1962 governor’s race were sharpened by a gifted writer and flaming racist. According to Wallace political chronicler Dan Carter (“The Politics of Rage”), “Political observers inevitably compared his snappy, hard-hitting speeches with his relatively lackluster performance in 1958. Wallace’s closest aides credited their new speechwriter, Asa Earl Carter.”
Carter stayed in the background of the campaign, owing to his nasty reputation. As a Birmingham radio announcer he had spouted white supremacy, denouncing blacks and Jews. He led the North Alabama Citizens Council and formed his own KKK klavern, members of which emasculated a mentally retarded young black man and beat up Nat King Cole on a Birmingham stage. Carter shot and seriously wounded two of his KKK followers when they challenged him in a meeting.
After contributing to Wallace’s 1970 governor’s race, Carter disappeared from Alabama and reinvented himself in Texas as a writer of Westerns, critically acclaimed for their brutal authenticity. His biggest success, under the pen name Forest Carter, was “The Rebel Outlaw Josie Wales,” which became a major motion picture in 1976 starring and directed by Clint Eastwood. His fictional memoir of a Cherokee orphan “The Education of Little Tree” was acclaimed as a contemporary classic and went to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
Carter died in a drunken brawl in 1979. He is the subject of a 2011 documentary “The Reconstruction of Asa Carter.”
1970: A National Low
For dirty politics, George Wallace takes a ribbon again for his 1970 governor’s race against incumbent Albert Brewer.
In his book “Mudslingers: The Top 25 Negative Campaigns of All Time,” political science professor Kerwin Swint pegged the 1970 Alabama race as #1—at the top of the heap of political swinishness that includes such heavies as Richard Daley, Edwin Edwards and Richard Nixon, as well as the usual run of forefathers like Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Grant.
Lieutenant Governor Brewer was a racial moderate who had taken over as governor when Lurleen Wallace died in office in 1968.
George had assured Brewer he would not be a candidate in 1970, but Wallace changed his mind in 1969, announcing his campaign with a legislative proposal to defy federal court orders for school integration. “That’s a whole lot more than some of these sissy folks have done,” Wallace declared. He followed with attacks on the black “block vote” that would be going to the “sissy” incumbent.
A combination of blacks and moderate white voters and Nixon Republican money put Brewer over Wallace by 8,000 votes in the May 5 primary. Nixon, anxious to knock Wallace out of a 1972 presidential campaign, kicked in $100,000 to the Brewer campaign from Nixon’s $1.9 million reelection cash.
Wallace, on the brink of political oblivion, cut loose with both barrels. On the rural stump, “block vote” transformed into: “You know, 300,000 nigger voters is mighty hard to overcome.” Instead of “sissy britches,” pamphlets accused Brewer of being a homosexual. Brewer’s daughters were accused of having black boyfriends. Brewer’s wife was said to be an alcoholic. Tricksters showed up after Martha Brewer’s campaign speeches asking, “She wasn’t slurring her words, was she?” Pamphlets faked photos of Brewer with Black Muslim leaders. Another pamphlet, featuring a blond child at the beach surrounded by leering black men, admonished, “WAKE UP ALABAMA! BLACKS VOW TO TAKE OVER ALABAMA.”
Wallace won the general election with 51.5 percent of the vote, a margin of 32,000 out of more than a million votes.
Chris McFadyen is editorial director of Business Alabama.