George C. Wallace’s Inaugural Address

Before the 1950s, the idea of black and white people in the United States living “separate but equal” lives ran society – especially in Southern states. However, beginning in the mid-1950s and throughout the 60s, the civil rights movement gained momentum as people, mostly in the Northern U.S., began to voice their discontent with the Jim Crow laws that allowed segregation. While many Northerners were ready for the shift, plenty of Southern communities were against the idea of desegregation, and many politicians voiced their opinions on these changes in society in order to gain local support, using the claim that the national government was taking away state governments’ power. Governor George C. Wallace, one of these politicians, used religious ties, historical references, and a positive tone in order to gain support during his 1963 Inaugural Address after being elected Governor for the state of Alabama.

With a selective use of words, Wallace used positive tone on a subject considered heavy by most Americans in order to make his argument that segregation is a good thing for the country and state of Alabama. Wallace’s standpoint on segregation was that it was better for the community, as it was an opportunity “to develop, to grow in individual freedom and enrichment” for all people – regardless of the color of their skin. Describing this national divide of citizens based on race as something that permitted “freedom” and “enrichment,” Wallace is able to allude to the idea that everyone is benefitting in one way or another. Along with his use of positive words, Wallace uses more negatively-depicted terms to describe liberal-minded politicians and citizens of the period, calling them “communists” – a term that instilled fear in Americans. Due to negative connotations bred from the Communist Soviet Union’s rise as a global superpower and involvement in developing countries in Latin America and in Asia, America considered communism a very real and nearby threat to national safety and political freedoms in the early 20th century. By labeling those with the civil rights movement as “communists,” Wallace is taking advantage of the national fear of external communist groups to create opposition to a group he disagrees with the motives of.

Wallace uses the political stances of the founding fathers and members of the 18th century Continental Congress in order to make listeners feel as though the current U.S. government is betraying the standards set by these men. Citing historical figures like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison for their contributions to American politics as well as for their Southern heritage, Wallace sends his message that Southerners created the U.S.’s “divinely inspired system of freedom” and that “Southerners will save it.” By highlighting these men’s accomplishments, as well as highlighting fact that they’re from the South, Wallace uses their historical significance to fuel his claim that the national government is taking away the state government’s’ right to “preserve [their] freedoms and liberties” – calling the national government a “federal dictatorship.” This claim – that the national government, despite including a checks and balances system, is ultimately a dictatorship – creates an “us vs. them” mentality in his listeners, making it easier for Wallace to persuade them and get his message across.

Throughout his speech, Wallace used religion as a unifying force between him, his audience, and his state. Currently 84% Catholic, Alabama has always been a state with a fairly strong religious community, allowing for Wallace to connect with a large percentage of Alabama’s citizens. While he mostly sympathized with white Christians, his ability to connect to such a wide range of people allowed for him to get his messages across concerning his fear that the state’s government was being suppressed by that of the national government. Closing his speech with a prayer for God to “bless all the people… both white and black,” Wallace was able to appear to be inclusive of a larger regional audience, despite his overarching intolerance of the black community within Alabama and the South.

With the use of a positive tone, religious references, and historical references, Governor George C. Wallace is able to convey the message to his listeners that the capabilities of the U.S. government, on both a state and national level, have shifted since the country’s founding, and have come to favor the national government’s power over the states’, using segregation laws as an example of this shift. Although a change in religious beliefs would alter his mindset later in life, Wallace’s 1963 Inaugural Address would come to be one of the most well-known points of his political career – for both its persuasive tone and its bold claims about segregation – as well as fuel for the civil rights movement to push forward, leading to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

 

Works Cited

How ‘Communism’ Brought Racial Equality To The South, NPR, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123771194.

Isserman, Maurice, and Michael Kazin. America Divided. Oxford UP, 2000. New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/i/isserman-divided.html.

Kosmin, Barry A., et al. “American Religious Identification Survey.” ARIS, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, web.archive.org/web/20071127094118/http://www.gc.cuny.edu/faculty/research_briefs/aris.pdf.

Wallace, George C. “Inaugural Address.” 14 Jan. 1963. Alabama Department of Archives and History, digital.archives.alabama.gov/cdm/ref/collection/voices/id/2952.

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