In those days, as he rode a political wind that propelled him into contention for the Democratic nomination for president, he knew exactly what he was doing in stirring peoples' emotions and prejudices. But was he play- acting rather than making a serious bid to take on the awesome duties of the presidency? That is the question.
Wallace will be remembered best for his "stand in the schoolhouse door" - a vainglorious attempt to block the court-ordered admission to the University of Alabama of three blacks - Vivian J. Malone, 20, and Jimmy A. Hood, 20, at the main campus in Tuscaloosa and David M. McGlathery, 27, at the university extension center in Huntsville.
The year before he had won the governorship vowing he would stand in the door of any Alabama school to prevent integration and had concluded a flamboyant inaugural address with these words:
"In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod on this earth, I
draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet at the feet of tyranny. And I say: Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!"
In the weeks before June 10, 1963, the day Malone and Hood were to register, Wallace played a game of cat and mouse with President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, the attorney general. Wallace could not be pinned down about what he would do although from what he said it appeared that he wanted to force JFK to send in troops after Wallace had made a show of resistance.
Just as determinedly, the Kennedys searched for a strategy to rob Wallace of his moment of glory - that would accomplish enforcement of the court orders without putting Wallace into a position where he would have to be arrested.
As the confrontation was in the making, dreadful violence rocked Birmingham for several weeks as blacks, with many school children in their ranks and led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., marched to protest discrimination and were routed repeatedly with fire hoses, police dogs, night sticks and mass arrests.
President Kennedy had to dispatch 3,000 troops to an air base near Birmingham to forestall a plan by Wallace to send a state force of highway patrolmen, liquor agents, game wardens and deputy sheriffs to take over law enforcement in Birmingham and sabotage an uneasy truce that had been negotiated.
Thus, with tension high, Tuscaloosa city leaders, officials of the university and many prominent Alabamans were trying to avoid further violence, but when Wallace went to Tuscaloosa to take his stand, he had his force of troopers, deputies, liquor agents and game wardens ready to seal off the campus.
In a last-minute change of strategy, the Kennedys decided that Malone and Hood would drive on the campus with Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, but remain in the car while Katzenbach walked to the entrance of the registration building. If Wallace blocked the door, as he was expected to do, Katzenbach would then drive the students to their dormitories.
They would be on campus and they would stay there. Then the Alabama National Guard would be federalized if Wallace persisted to resist. And that's the way it worked out.
It was a morning of wilting heat; the temperature near 100 degrees and as one of Katzenbach's Justice Department team I stood between two Tuscaloosa city commissioners on the edge of the crowd.
When Katzenbach asked Wallace to step aside peacefully, Wallace began reading a proclamation castigating the "central government," justifying his stand and propounding an explicit exposition of states' rights.
"Damn him, damn him," one of the Tuscaloosa commissioners, George Ryan, swore softly.
"Yes," I said, "he keeps referring to our government like it was the Kremlin."
"I know," replied Ryan. "We didn't want this, but you should have seen what he did to us when we went to Montgomery to ask him not to come. He told us there'd be no road money for our county if we opposed him. He treated us like dogs."
Malone and Hood were taken to their dormitories. When the Alabama National Guard arrived on the scene, Wallace smartly returned the general's salute and withdrew. The next day he did not bother to go to Huntsville where McGlathery was enrolled without incident.
The Kennedys thought Wallace had been made to look ridiculous, that people would understand that he had only been posturing. Wallace's reaction was: "I stood eyeball to eyeball with them and they turned back."
With the enrollment of Malone and Hood, Alabama became the last state in the union to have school integration, and, within a few years, more than 300 blacks were attending classes at the university.
Despite his pledge and proclamation, Wallace did not prevent the color line
from being broken. But the incident brought Wallace to national attention and many invitations to speak outside the South and led him to forage for votes in the 1964 presidential primaries.
There, as Marshal Frady noted in his book Wallace, "it was clear that Wallace had invoked, had discovered a dark, silent, brooding mass of people whom no one - the newspapers, the political leaders, the intellectuals - no one but Wallace had suspected were there."