KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Former Alabama Governor George Wallace will be remembered for his segregationist policies, not for the political conversion and spiritual redemption which marked his later years, a University of Tennessee historian said Monday.
Dr. Robert J. Norrell, who holds UT-Knoxville’s Bernadotte Schmitt Chair of Excellence in history, said Wallace’s legacy will always be stained by race. Norrell has authored several works involving Wallace, including “Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskeegee,” (Knopf, 1985), three Alabama state history textbooks and a series of articles on Alabama politics.
“The historical record generally records what is really important, and that is a person’s actions, not apologies,” Norrell said. “What will be remembered in the history books is not Wallace’s apologies or personal redemption, but the big event in his life which was his role in the 1960s as an opponent of change, equality, democracy and freedom.
“The fact that he disavowed his actions and said he was sorry will be merely a footnote to the historical record.”
Wallace, 79, died Sunday. As governor in 1963, he became a symbol of a segregated South when he tried to block two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. He redeemed himself in later years by calling for racial reconciliation.
Though some civil rights leaders forgave him after he admitted what he had done was wrong, Norrell said history is likely to be less kind.
“We cannot judge Governor Wallace’s heart nor whether he truly saw the error of his ways,” Norrell said. “Historians, filmmakers and such can only focus on his career as governor and presidential candidate. In the long run, they will likely judge him very harshly for having fomented hatred for selfish political gain.”
Contact: Dr. Robert J. Norrell (423-974-1130)