1970 was a pivotal year for Alabama politics

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Commentary by Steve Flowers

Many historians and political scientists point to a certain political race and year as a watershed or pivotal race in a state’s course or history. That year in Alabama and that race was the 1970 Governor’s race between George Wallace and Albert Brewer. It was an epic battle.

Albert Brewer was the most clean cut looking politician to grace the Capitol. He was a prince of a fellow, likeable, with a winning smile. He came as a Legislator in the Freshman Class of 1958 that Bob Ingram refers to as the greatest class of legislators assembled. He was elected to the House from Decatur in Morgan County at age 29. A lawyer by profession, he quickly learned the ropes, and after only four years experience he became Speaker of the House in 1963 which was Wallace’s first term as Governor. It should be noted that he would not have been elected Speaker without Wallace’s blessings. After four years as Speaker he ran for Lt. Governor. In 1966 Wallace’s wife, Lurleen, carried the state in a landslide and Brewer was the Wallace teams’s candidate for Lt. Governor. He beat two State Senators, Neil Metcalf and John Tyson without a runoff.

Lurleen Wallace had cancer when she was elected in 1966. She died two years later from the dread disease. Brewer ascended to the Governor’s office. He continued Lurleen’s passionate work, upgrading Alabama’s Mental Health facilities, but also took on some progressive programs of his own. He was very popular among legislators in the House and Senate. He had strong friendships built by personal relationship. He was widely respected for his abilities, honesty, integrity and loyalty. He was loyal to Wallace.

He had made business and governmental issues his paramount importance and downplayed the race issue. Wallace had parlayed the race issue into his calling card and had drawn national attention toAlabama. We had gotten a very negative image nationwide as a backwoods, race driven island. It was hurting economic development. In 1968 Wallace had become a household word and it was synonymous with race-baiting. He had been elected Governor in 1982 as a hard-line racist. His 1963 inaugural address vowed, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” He ran for President as a States’ Right Candidate in 1964 and ran as the “Southern Segregation” candidate for President in 1968. When his wife died in 1968, he was running for President.

The State was at a crossroad. The business community inAlabama wanted a noncontroversial, progressive, “new south” Governor like Albert Brewer. Wallace supposedly told Brewer he did not intend to run in 1970. Brewer committed himself to running for Governor. At the last minute, Wallace changed his mind and decided to run. The race was on.

Early on it was apparent who was on which side. The business community and middle-to-upper income whites primarily in the suburbs ofMontgomery, Birmingham, and Huntsville were with Brewer, along with 300,000-400,000 new black voters registered by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. So the battle lines were drawn with what is today Republican voters, there was still no real Republican Party in Alabama, and black voters united for Brewer and the traditional Alabama white voter for George Wallace.

Brewer lead in the first primary by a small margin. The runoff was set for three weeks of brutal campaigning in June, and brutal it was. With Wallace’s political life on the line, he called out all the stops. Brewer had effectively used a slogan, ‘We need a full time Governor’ which resonated with swing voters because they knew that Wallace had not been full time since he was running for President fulltime.

Wallace countered in the runoff by begging for forgiveness and promising never to run for President again. Wallace spoke 10 times a day at Court House rallies all over rural Alabama. Wallace also ran some of the most negative T. V. ads in our state’s history against Brewer, saying that a vote for Brewer would turn the state over to the “Black Bloc Vote.” There were also vicious flyers attacking Brewer and his family. Wallace came from behind to prevail. He was on a plane to Wisconsin the next day running for President in 1972.

See you next week.

Steve writes a weekly syndicated column on Alabama politics. He served 16 years in the Alabama House of Representatives. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.