In the fall of 1997, I invited Clarke Stallworth and Pete Mathews to speak to my Alabama history class.
And why shouldn’t I? They were Alabama history.
Stallworth, city editor for the Birmingham Post-Herald and the Birmingham News in the 1960s, was then a distinguished professor of journalism at Jacksonville State. Mathews was a long-time legislator and president of the JSU Board of Trustees. Both had been at the center of events during the civil rights era.
Earlier in the semester, Mr. Pete had informed me that he was going to sit in on my class. Since he was who he was and, in effect, my boss, I nervously welcomed him with open arms.
On the first day of class, he entered the room quietly and took a seat in the rear, next to a pair of lovely co-eds — Mr. Pete had an eye for the ladies.
No one had a clue who he was until the day he and Stallworth took center stage.
I got it all on tape.
Clarke began by letting the students know that he and George Wallace had not been friends. He had been critical of Wallace, and the governor-elect did not like critics. Even before he was sworn in, Wallace spread the word that no one in his administration was to talk with Stallworth. If there was a news story to be had, Clarke Stallworth would not have it.
Mr. Pete ignored the order. Although he was considered a Wallace insider (he once laughingly told me, “I was George’s boy”), he and Clarke were friends, so Mathews continued to feed Stallworth information.
Which was what he did that cold January night in 1963.
It was at the Elite (that is not elite, but E-lite) Café in Montgomery, a hangout for politicians. The inauguration was the next day. Stallworth was there by himself, “dodging lobbyists,” when Mr. Pete came in, all excited.
“Clarke,” he said as he took a seat, “you are going to be amazed, you are just going to be knocked out by the speech that I just read in George Wallace’s office.”
Then he went on to tell how Wallace was going to deliver an inaugural address that “was coming off some of the racist rhetoric he had used in the campaign,” a speech, Mathews told Stallworth, that the reporter “would be proud of.”
They talked a bit more, talked about Wallace returning to his populist roots, about him adopting a tone that was calming, almost conciliatory, a tone that would ease the racial tensions that his rhetoric had created during the campaign.
“Wow,” Clarke said, “that’s really encouraging.”
A short time later they parted, secure in the knowledge that Alabama soon would enter a new era, one of racial reconciliation that would usher in a better future for all.
The next day, Stallworth stood in the crowd and waited for the new governor to tell Alabamians it was time to stop fussing and fighting, time to start obeying the law, time to stop looking backward and time to go forward.
Instead, Stallworth heard a bitter denunciation of the federal government’s effort to enforce court orders that would end racial discrimination, and he heard Wallace “draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny” and declare “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
What had happened?
Mr. Pete knew.
That night, Asa Carter and John Kohn (another little-remembered but once-powerful segregationist) met Wallace in the governor’s office. They told the governor-elect that if he delivered the conciliatory speech, his career was over. They reminded the incoming governor that what white Alabamians wanted was in-your-face defiance, and Wallace, who Stallworth said “ran around behind the crowd and heard the mutterings, then came around to the front of the crowd and gave it back to them,” concluded that Carter and Kohn were right.
So he let them rewrite the speech.
And that, Stallworth added, “changed the history of the United States.”
History, of course, is full of might-have-beens, full of those moments when someone could have said “no,” or maybe “yes,” or at least done something different and in the process rewritten the future.
Wallace might have delivered the speech Mathews told Stallworth about.
But Wallace didn’t.
What changed American history was not the “segregation forever” speech that Carter and Kohn wrote. What changed American history was that Carter and Kohn convinced Wallace that the “segregation forever” speech was the speech he should deliver.
What Wallace said that day in January 1963 was important.
But not nearly as important as what he almost said, but didn’t.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.