In four consecutive campaigns for president, his strident segregationist and populist stands shook the foundations of America. As Alabama's only four-term governor, he shaped the state for decades and, some argue, retarded a generation of potential home-grown leadership.
He rose from near poverty in southeast Alabama to challenge the crashing tides of history, which he thought were dictated by the liberal elite of the nation.
In his healthy days, before he was shot and paralyzed in 1972 while campaigning for president, he was a proud 5-foot-6-inch man who could strut like a rooster. He was a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth. And some friends arguing he was never at heart the fiery racist many considered him in public life - recall how he once as a boy came to the defense of a young black friend.
Black attorneys say Wallace was unfailingly thoughtful and courteous to them when they practiced before him, a Barbour County judge in the late 1950s.
In his public persona, however, the adult Wallace often was as pugnacious as a snarling pit bull. He was the most obstreperous kid on the political playground, and his rapacious ego threatened to engulf the whole country. But when calculating ambition was not dominating him, Wallace could be engagingly charming, convivial and witty, even thoughtfully compassionate.
He seemed to remember the name of everyone he ever met. He was extremely well-read, with a lifelong fondness for historical biographies. Maybe he envisioned pieces of himself in the great men of the world he read about. He obviously aspired to make his mark, too.
In the 1960s, Wallace was the country's most virulent elected segregationist. And in the broad view, many analysts give him low marks for the backward image he gave Alabama as its people struggled to cope with and accept change in the civil rights era.
His supporters, however, emphasize how he later pointedly renounced those views, after the presidential spotlight faded, and was elected with conspicuous black support in his fourth and final gubernatorial campaign in 1982.
In any case, Wallace's impact on Alabama - and the politics of the United States - has been imposing.
Throw in the half-term his first wife, Lurleen Burns Wallace, served as governor before her death in 1968, and Wallace dominated Alabama politics for almost a quarter century.
"His main impact on Alabama was to act as a barrier to the development of younger, more imaginative political leaders in the state," says Emory University history professor Dan T. Carter, who in late 1995 published a highly critical biography, "The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, The Origins of the New Conservatism and the Transformation of American Politics."
"By so dominating the state, I think he ended up creating, in effect, a kind of wasteland for other ambitious and capable Alabama politicians."
With Wallace serving so long, there was little for younger politicians to aspire to. But the governorship was a platform he desperately needed to feed his own ambition and to mount his presidential campaigns.
Indeed, Wallace once said he considered being governor just a step below the presidency.
For a decade or more, starting with his first term as governor in 1963, Wallace cast a shadow across the national political landscape.
"He had a tremendous impact," Theodore White, the late political historian, said when a tearful Wallace announced in April 1986 his final retirement from politics. "He will have a lingering impact. Wallace was a marker on the road to the disintegration of the Democratic Party."
Certainly, that largely has been true in presidential politics.
Tapping into public frustrations over social change in the 1960s, Wallace challenged the leadership of the Democratic Party. He was a Democrat, too, but his opposition to federal civil rights legislation was a key factor in breaking the once solid Democratic South and delivering it to the Republicans.
Stephan Lesher, who published a biography in 1994, "George Wallace: American Populist," argues that he was the precursor of the conservative political movement nationally, which culminated with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
"For good or for ill, George Wallace was on the cutting edge of the issues that were bugging the middle class, read that white working people in America," says Lesher, a former Newsweek correspondent. "People began identifying with this notion that the federal government was going too far. He took those ideas national."
Lesher hears strains of Wallace's rhetoric in virtually every successful national politician of the last 30 years. That rhetoric grew louder with the Republican sweep of Congress in 1994, when the GOP's anti-Washington state's-rights themes sounded eerily reminiscent of Wallace in the 1960s and early '70s.
Some Wallace watchers explain his segregationist past as an example of simple political opportunism. After all, in the Dixiecrat walkout at the Democratic convention in 1948, delegate Wallace did not bolt the party as did most Southern leaders, though he remained behind only to argue the segregationist cause in a coveted national forum.
He didn't really care about race one way or another, some have argued; he simply was quicker than others to sense the public's discontent and shrewdly play racist and anti-federal themes to his political advantage.
"They are wrong," Wallace insisted in a 1985 interview with The Star. "I was a segregationist. I didn't do it for political expediency. I believed in it. I thought it was best for all concerned. I'd been taught that. I was brought up that way. It was as accepted as the sunrise and sunset. It was never discussed in my little hometown. It was just meant to be."
Still, a segregationist in the 1960s was not necessarily the fiery racist many considered Wallace to be. Some young Southern politicians gave up promising careers rather than play the racial game.
Indeed, unlike any other national politician of his era, Wallace pressed his segregationist views, often with mean-spirited demagogic relish.
Professor Carter's book, often with startling documentation, links the '60s Wallace to the most extreme elements of the radical right. Even Wallace sometimes complained about some of the "kooks" his campaigns attracted.
To the foot-stomping delight of admirers, he suggested that federal Judge Frank Johnson Jr. of Montgomery, a close friend in their college days, should be given a "barbed-wire enema" for his integration rulings. Wallace sometimes personalized the attacks further, mentioning Johnson's family in harangues before roaring crowds.
Much later, through intermediaries, Wallace apologized, but Johnson never forgave him and pointedly rebuffed Wallace overtures for a face-to-face reconciliation.
"I sent him a message back that if he wanted forgiveness, he'd have to get it from the Lord," Johnson told biographer Jack Bass. "And I never heard from him again."
Wallace branded the U.S. Supreme Court a "sorry, lousy, no-account outfit." He complained bitterly about the "sissy intellectual morons and theoreticians" advising President Lyndon Johnson, about the bureaucrats who "couldn't park their bicycles straight."
In the 1960s, Wallace's defiant voice thundered across the political firmament like no other as social change grew frighteningly chaotic, and increasingly inevitable. He carried the segregationist banner higher than Ross Barnett in Mississippi and Orville Faubus in Arkansas.
Meanwhile, black churches were bombed. Demonstrators seeking the simple right to vote or eat in restaurants that catered to the public were beaten in the streets of Birmingham and Selma. Cities burned. Black citizens were murdered, often with cases going unsolved.
Some argued that the raw, angry venom of Wallace's rhetoric was at least partially responsible, an assertion he dismissed to the end.
With his courting of black voters, particularly in his fourth and final campaign for governor in 1982, many, including a goodly share of the state's blacks, forgave Wallace and helped re-elect him.
Others insisted that the vitriol that energized his initial rise to national prominence and polarized the nation should never be forgotten.
"There was an exhilarating populist impulse that Wallace loosed on the nation," says Marshall Frady, who wrote an impressionistic first biography of Wallace in 1968. "But it just can't be forgotten how vigorously he cultivated those sulfurs and rancors and furies through the '60s. Like a chameleon, he assumed the dark colorations of those terribly dark times and amplified them.
"In history, he ought to be more than an asterisk."
Wallace was born Aug. 25, 1919, and raised in the Barbour County village of Clio (pronounced Cly-o), where he developed a sense of Southern history. He learned of the Civil War from the first-hand stories of noble veterans and came to resent the oppressive North.
His mother taught piano. His father eked out an existence for his three sons and daughter by farming, but he also was elected chairman of the county's Board of Revenue.
Fascinated by the doings of his politician father, young George showed political ambition early. At age 16 he went to Montgomery, campaigned for and won a job as a legislative page.
At the University of Alabama, he was elected president of the freshman class, though he lost two campaigns to become president of the socially prestigious and politically powerful Cotillion Club.
Following graduation, he met Lurleen Burns, 16, a shy dime-store clerk from Tuscaloosa. By then Wallace had a reputation as a ladies' man. He arranged a date with Lurleen the first day he saw her.
Wallace finished law school at the university in 1942 and, as he trained to become a B-29 flight engineer in the Army Air Corps, married Lurleen.
He served in the Pacific, and after being discharged with a 10 percent nervous disability - he returned home and secured a patronage job through Gov. Chauncey Sparks as an assistant attorney general. He later served Barbour County for two terms in the Alabama House of Representatives.
Former Lt. Gov. Guy Hardwick once recalled Wallace's first legislative term. The eager Wallace seemed to be politicking everywhere.
Much political dealing was done at Alabama-Auburn football games. On one such occasion, Wallace rented a room in Birmingham's Tutwiler Hotel and repeatedly called the front desk to have himself paged in the lobby. The tactic drew great attention to him from the hotel's swarm of guests, who heard his name being called over and over.
Friends have recalled how Wallace, apparently in the 1950s, insisted on making a lengthy trip to Birmingham to meet and hear Sen. John F. Kennedy speak. The Massachusetts senator, Wallace enthused to pals, might be president one day.
In those years, Wallace was a protégé of Gov. James Elisha "Big Jim" Folsom, a racial moderate. But they split when Folsom invited black Harlem Rep. Adam Clayton Powell to the governor's mansion for a drink, and Wallace sensed Alabamians didn't like it.
Then Wallace became a circuit judge for Bullock and Barbour counties, where he made a name for himself in 1959 for temporarily defying an order from Frank Johnson - his former law school classmate was then a U.S. district judge - to turn over voter registration records to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
Wallace finally produced the records, under threat of being jailed. But he always claimed he had not acquiesced to federal authority, a contention that even the stoic Judge Johnson disputed publicly.
Wallace mounted his first campaign for governor in 1958, running against Attorney General John Patterson, who had the open support of the Ku Klux Klan, which Wallace criticized. But when he suffered a psychologically devastating defeat, friend Glen Curlee recalled years later, the ambitious Wallace swore: "I'll never be out-niggered again."
He never was.
In 1962, Wallace again ran for governor. This time he won. And he forever cast his image in his infamous inaugural address, declaring in part:
"In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. And I say, Segregation Now! Segregation Tomorrow! Segregation Forever!"
Those jarring words, penned by the late Asa Earl "Ace" Carter of Oxford, a controversial segregationist and Wallace speechwriter, paraphrased a secret pledge of the Ku Klux Klan, which this time worked hard to elect Wallace.
With an eye on his place in history, Wallace would later rue the day he made the "segregation forever" pledge, conceding he never should have said such things. Some of his supporters asserted that aides had pressured him to use those words. Glen Curlee, however, says he literally begged Wallace to drop the "segregation forever" phrase from his speech, knowing full well that it would later haunt him, all to no avail.
In any event, those ringing words helped forever seal Wallace's segregationist reputation, no matter what he did later or how much he appeared to change.
Five months after taking office, Wallace staged, as biographer Lesher calls it, his "defining moment."
On Tuesday, June 11, 1963, with 1,500 National Guardsmen and State Troopers crowding the campus to assure peace, Wallace symbolically stood in front of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to block the admission of two black students - James Hood of East Gadsden and Vivian Malone of Mobile - to the university.
The integration of the university took place peacefully later that day. Wallace's stand in the schoolhouse door was largely orchestrated simply to give him the national platform and publicity he craved.
More to the point, however, was that Wallace's "stand" took place nine years after the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, which ordered school integration, making it inevitable.
(Autherine Lucy of Mobile was actually the first black admitted to the university, in February 1956, but she was quickly expelled when the university learned she was black and white students demonstrated en masse against her. A young black Birmingham native who couldn't attend the university because of its segregationist policies later became Mrs. Colin Powell.)
In any event, that day in Tuscaloosa suddenly transformed the governor of Alabama into a national figure, albeit for many, a frighteningly controversial one.
Network television was saturated with reports of the confrontation in Tuscaloosa. A week earlier, Wallace made his first appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," the premier news interview program of its day; he would appear on the show 11 more times in the next 13 years.
Lawrence E. Spivak, the founder and long-time moderator of the program, once recalled how controversial Wallace's first visit was. The mayor of New York asked that his appearance be canceled.
When it took place anyway, Spivak said it seemed as though every police officer in the city had been called out to guarantee Gov. Wallace's safety.
Three months after his schoolhouse stand, Wallace's snarling bulldog visage first appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The cover also depicted the shattered stained-glass window of Birmingham's
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which the Klan had bombed, killing four little black girls. The cover bore the headline:
"Alabama: Civil Rights Battlefield."
The civil rights movement had found its lightning rod.
Hours after Wallace's confrontation with federal authorities at the university, President Kennedy reacted in a hastily arranged address to the nation on television. Kennedy laid out the issue in simple terms. He referred to the "threats and defiant statements" made earlier that day in Tuscaloosa, but he never mentioned Wallace by name. He referred to the violence in Birmingham.
Kennedy said in part:
"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated."
Some said it was Kennedy's most eloquent speech.
A few hours following JFK's address, the nation's psyche was shaken again when Medgar Evers, a prominent civil rights leader in Jackson, Miss., was gunned down in the driveway of his home by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith.
The alarming violence was routinely decried, but there was no real middle ground for Wallace and his supporters. He played to every public passion and fear in a time of wrenching social and political upheaval, which Wallace asserted was communist-inspired.
To his idolaters, Wallace was a savior in the states-rights crusade to fight growing federal authority and civil rights legislation.
To his detractors, he was the devil incarnate.
"He told people what they wanted to hear," said friend Glen Curlee, the long-time district attorney of Elmore County. "He was a populist."
Wallace knew he had struck the raw nerve of racial intolerance. And - within months after first becoming governor - he began planning to run for president in 1964. He also launched a speaking tour of Ivy League campuses, a strategy calculated to generate another avalanche of national publicity.
One stop was at Harvard, where he spoke to the Young Democrats Club.
When he arrived, Wallace went to rest and prepare for his speech at the student apartment of the club's program chairman and his roommate, Anthony Barash, now a South Carolina attorney.
Wallace chatted with the two students for about an hour. The race issue was not raised.
"The thing that struck me most vividly about Wallace was that the image I had of him from the press was completely disabused," Barash, a liberal Democrat, recalled 30 years later. "He was articulate, direct and certainly well-read and well-versed. He was thoughtful, soft spoken, not in any way demagogic. I came away from that meeting with great respect for Wallace's intelligence and for his capacity to articulate his case outside the issue of civil rights for blacks.
"I think the priority on his agenda was economic," Barash said. "I think Wallace was using racist demagoguery as a mask for other populist goals, and I think history has probably demonstrated that over time. But I also think he was an intensely manipulative politician in the worst sense of the word."
Wallace's economic agenda, at least rhetorically, always focused on helping the poor and the underdog. Yet, in what initially appeared to be barring blacks from reaching economic equality, he forever cast a shroud over his career.
He did much the same in other ways.
For instance, whatever Wallace's political philosophy was - some early supporters later complained that he was an economic liberal - much of it seemed to run a distant second to his own personal ambition.
As governor, he built roads and increased appropriations to education. A primary objective had been to improve education. In his last term, he pushed for and won a 30-percent pay raise for teachers over a two-year period.
Analysts, though, argue that much of what he accomplished as governor was largely routine and predictable. Any governor can claim to build more roads and fund increases for education. Others give him credit in varying degrees.
Lesher, with whom Wallace cooperated on the biography, rates him a strong governor over the years, but he also notes the limitations he faced.
"From the standpoint of a small state like Alabama, you don't start with a lot to work with, and you've got to make compromises," Lesher says.
Former University of Alabama history professor William Barnard largely agrees.
"In many ways, if you could divorce the racial politics, Wallace would have a relatively positive record," Barnard says. "But the contribution that's lasting is a negative one, and that's the black eye the state got during the civil rights movement. Wallace persisted in supporting programs other governors have supported: roads, health institutions, education. Most of that expansion would have occurred regardless of who was governor.
"Wallace does not leave the state with a legacy of enlightened, progressive government of the sort Terry Sanford left in North Carolina or Reubin Askew did in Florida or Jimmy Carter in Georgia or Bill Winter in Mississippi or Bill Clinton in Arkansas," Barnard says.
There were other criticisms. Some point to the trade-school network Wallace helped establish at a cost of putting one in virtually every locality in the state, a luxury a poor state like Alabama is hard-pressed to afford. Wallace argued the related back-room dealing was critical to get the program through the Legislature.
On the more negative side, Wallace sometimes injected himself into and disrupted local efforts to integrate schools peacefully. Federal courts assumed control of the state's poorly administered and inhumane mental health and bulging prison systems during Wallace's terms, while he paid little attention to the problems.
Others criticize Wallace for not using his early political capital to tackle equally imposing problems, such as the state's antiquated constitution and tax structure, which is highly regressive and demands more of the poor and middle class - Wallace's core constituency - than the wealthy.
"Despite all his talk about improving the lot of Alabamians, I think the main thing Wallace didn't tackle was the tax situation in Alabama," says biographer Carter. "In Alabama, like most Southern states, the tax structure is very regressive. It didn't just involve the utility companies; it was the timber companies as well. He never set about to try and change any of that, and I think it was just because he wasn't committed to it heart and soul.
"He was not willing to expend the political capital, because his attention was elsewhere."
Wallace's attention was on ambition and power. He had grabbed it in Alabama, and he didn't want to let it slip away. Indeed, he wanted to be sure he maintained his political base to pursue his goal of becoming president.
The biggest fight of Wallace's first term focused on whether he could succeed himself, which at the time was prohibited. Wallace faced the prospect of being a one-term governor with no forum for his views. This was one issue Wallace was willing to go to the wall for, and he and the Legislature wrestled fiercely over the subject.
Some lawmakers who fought Wallace's succession law later were defeated at the polls or quit because of the viciousness of the struggle.
In the end the Legislature won, sort of.
Lawmakers blocked Wallace's succession legislation - voters approved it as a constitutional amendment in 1968 - so the governor decided to maintain his power as best he could: His wife, Lurleen, ran for governor.
Lurleen won easily in 1966. For all practical purposes, Wallace still had his forum.
When Wallace first ran for president in 1964, he entered several primaries and ran well, but he didn't have a chance to overcome the landslide popularity of President Lyndon Johnson.
Still, Wallace's opposition to federal civil rights policies had raised a potent issue among an increasingly disaffected bloc of voters. And the Republican presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, agreed with Wallace's states-rights argument that the federal government had no role in the civil rights debate.
War and peace in Vietnam was the big issue in much of the country, but in the South the 1964 presidential vote turned on civil rights.
LBJ swamped Goldwater that year, claiming 61 percent of the vote in one of the worst drubbings in presidential politics. But Goldwater's showing had a critical twist; he carried his home and five other states of the old Confederacy, including Alabama, where Goldwater claimed 69.5 percent of the vote.
The Democrats' solid-South base had been shattered. And it became the core of the GOP's presidential campaigns for the rest of Wallace's life.
Major civil rights legislation became law in 1964 and 1965 at the urging of Lyndon Johnson, largely in reaction to racial bloodshed in Alabama and Mississippi.
Blacks now could register to vote in the South. Legally, they could eat in any restaurant or sleep in any motel that served the public. They could buy any house in any neighborhood they could afford.
For all practical purposes, the legal issue of civil rights was settled. But it didn't go away, and the ongoing conflict cut to the bone of a racially divided country that Wallace helped polarize.
Wallace, of course, wanted another shot at the White House. And though his wife was governor and he held no office, he prepared to run for president in 1968.
He realized he couldn't win the Democratic nomination, so he mounted the most serious third-party challenge since Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive "Bull Moose" Party campaign in 1912.
Wallace formed the American Independent Party in 1968. By then his rhetoric was beginning to focus on big government and federal intervention. He warned about liberals and the godless communist threat, too. Civil rights per se was not an issue, but his admirers knew where he stood on such matters. His campaign clearly had the effect of pushing Republican nominee Richard Nixon to the right.
Nixon, in fact, reacted to Wallace by adopting a "Southern strategy" to beat Democrat Hubert Humphrey and claim a winning share of the Wallace vote in the Deep South.
It worked, too, but not before Wallace had shown even more political strength.
Wallace received 13.5 percent of the national vote in 1968. In the three-man race he carried five Southern states: Alabama (66 percent), Arkansas (38.7 percent), Georgia (43.3 percent), Mississippi (63.5 percent) and Louisiana (48.3 percent).
Ross Perot received more popular votes in 1992 but did not carry a single state.
"Wallace was not in any way a creative force, in the sense that he created issues," says Carter. "But he was far and away the political figure who understood the kind of sea change that was taking place in American politics. In terms of bringing to a head concerns and apprehensions that people had and giving them a kind of voice, he did that. There's no question about it."
Marshall Frady carries those ideas further. Says Frady:
"Wallace was always more important as a symbol than a precipitator. He was the most purely instinctual politician - and in that sense, a genius - that I ever ran across. He could detect these popular voltages quicker than almost anyone else. I don't think he will loom as large as Huey Long, but he will be remembered in much the same way."
In May 1968, Gov. Lurleen Wallace died of cancer and was succeeded by Lt. Gov. Albert Brewer, who two years later sought to win election on his own.
George Wallace pledged not to oppose Brewer. But he did.
The 1970 gubernatorial campaign lapsed into one of the dirtiest in the state's history. Some of the Wallace faithful, desperate to return the boss to power, slandered Brewer in every way imaginable.
Wallace forces spread unsigned leaflets claiming that Brewer was a homosexual, that his wife was a drunk, that one of his daughters was pregnant by a black man.
For years it was not clear whether anyone in Wallace's formal organization knew about or actually authorized the smears. There is ample evidence that the Klan, whose support Wallace openly courted, helped spread the lies. Former Wallace legislative ally Pete Mathews of Jacksonville has said there was no doubt that ranking Wallace aides helped orchestrate the smears.
Wallace himself talked about the powerful "bloc vote," and everybody knew he was referring to blacks.
Wallace narrowly defeated Brewer in the 1970 Democratic primary runoff. He was back in power in Alabama, just in time to start raising money and crisscrossing the nation as the 1972 presidential campaign approached.
Wallace, running as a Democrat this time and using the bitter slogan "Send 'em a message," had startling success in the presidential primaries that year. Often aiming his sharp attacks at long-haired kids protesting the war in Vietnam, he ran a respectable second to George McGovern in Wisconsin. He won the Democratic primary in North Carolina against a popular favorite son, Terry Sanford.
More importantly, Wallace easily claimed Florida, where the population represented a microcosm of the national electorate. In the Sunshine State, he received 42 percent of the vote and carried every county; Hubert Humphrey ran a distant second with 19 percent.
Wallace was a contender, a leading contender. Nervous Democratic Party leaders would have to come to terms with him, and everybody knew it.
Then fate intervened.
On May 19, 1972, Wallace made a hastily arranged campaign stop at a shopping center in Laurel, Md. Following the speech, the normally security-conscious Wallace stepped from behind his bullet-proof lectern, shed his suit coat and waded into the friendly crowd to shake hands.
Then it happened.
"The next thing I knew I heard five firecracker-sounding pops," Wallace recalled later. "In my own mind, I knew this was it. I had been shot. I felt no shots, but I felt myself falling, and there I was on the ground. I attempted to move my legs. I knew immediately I was paralyzed. My condition was such that you were looking at a dead man."
Arthur Bremer, 21, a drifter and a loner from Milwaukee, had been stalking Wallace for weeks. In Laurel he came close enough to shoot him. Bremer was convicted of various assault and weapons charges and sentenced to 53 years in prison.
Now confined at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, Bremer first became eligible for parole in 1985 but has repeatedly said he doesn't want to be released.
"If he serves his whole sentence, and almost nobody does, Bremer will leave prison May 15, 2025," says corrections spokesman Leonard Sipes.
Wallace later said he forgave Bremer.
The shooting of Wallace, coming nine years after the assassination of President Kennedy and four years after the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., stunned the nation. One bullet lodged next to his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down for the rest of his life.
For all practical purposes, the assassination attempt ended Wallace's viability as a presidential candidate. He did attend the Democratic convention that summer in Miami Beach, Fla., spoke and was warmly received. But the visage of the once-vigorous Wallace immobile in a wheelchair was jarring.
Still, Wallace had sensed the mood of the electorate. He warned the convention that the federal government had become too intrusive in state affairs, that taxes were too high and a revolt was in the offing, a prediction that came true.
Wallace returned to Alabama to finish his second term as governor. By then the succession law had been changed, and in 1974 he was re-elected with little opposition.
By then, too, Wallace was openly coming to terms with his racist image. Black voters, because of federal legislation he had opposed, had registered in great numbers, becoming a force in every election in Alabama.
With an eye toward the harsh judgment of history, Wallace also was quietly going before blacks and telling them he had been wrong to support segregation.
He publicly apologized for it all.
Ray Jenkins, a former Montgomery newspaper editor, recalls seeing Wallace make an unpublicized speech - apparently in 1979 - to a group of black preachers at the Dexter Avenue-King Baptist Church in Montgomery, where Martin Luther King Jr. began his career. The meeting took place when Wallace was out of office and no one expected him to mount one last campaign in 1982.
"He spoke in very moving terms about how poor black people and poor white people had the same legacy of poverty," Jenkins recalls.
"When he was wheeled out, the organist was playing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." There was hardly a dry eye in the place. The greatest feature of black Christianity is generosity. Blacks know what a handicap is like.
"From then on, I felt Wallace had been forgiven."
He mounted his fourth and final presidential campaign in 1976, but by then other more respectable Southerners were viable candidates. When Jimmy Carter bested Wallace in the critical Florida primary, it was over, or so everyone thought.
Wallace announced his retirement and left office in 1979. "I'm through," he said, taking a job in Montgomery as director of rehabilitation resources for the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he often went for medical treatment.
As time passed, though, he came to miss the power and the trappings of office, the things that some said he had always craved the most. And in 1982 he made a comeback.
The race for governor that year came down to the Democratic runoff between Wallace and Lt. Gov. George McMillan, a moderate white Birmingham attorney who had none of Wallace's racial baggage.
When the votes were counted, Wallace had claimed a hair-splitting win. Pollsters estimated he received a startling 38 percent of the black vote, which gave him his margin of victory. In November, Wallace easily beat right-wing Emory Folmar, the Republican mayor of Montgomery.
He was governor one final time.
Some rate Wallace's last term his best, an irony because the increasingly fragile and deaf governor had to rely so much on aides. In the months following his inauguration, he was in and out of the hospital several times to be treated for pain and urinary tract infections, common ailments for paraplegics. Wallace still knew how to pull the levers of government, but he had lost a key source of his power, his once-boundless energy.
Seeking to reverse the irreversible images of the past, he appointed blacks and women to office. His appointments secretary, Charles Carr, carefully tracked black appointments. In Wallace's last term, 15.7 percent of his appointees were black - which presumably honored secret campaign promises to get votes - and for a time two African-Americans held key cabinet positions.
Though increasingly frail, Wallace gamely forced himself to make industry-hunting trips to Asia. And he pushed for more money for education, prisons and mental health.
Often, though, he was virtually invisible.
Toward the end of his last term, he might come to his Capitol office a day or two a week, primarily on proclamation days when the public came to have pictures taken with him. But he preferred to work at the governor's mansion, keeping in contact with aides and lawmakers by telephone. There were times, though, when legislative leaders weren't sure if Wallace's powerful aides were speaking for themselves or for the governor.
A Montgomery television station, when it reported on Wallace, often showed the empty chair in his office.
Wallace continued to experience constant pain from the assassination attempt. Phantom pains, they were called. In 1985, he underwent experimental surgery in Colorado to relieve the "debilitating pain'' his doctors talked about, but the operation was not successful.
The governor was known to be taking powerful painkillers and antidepressants, causing some to wonder whether he was impaired by drugs.
There were indignities, too.
One night on NBC-TV, analyst John Chancellor referred in passing to the "late George Wallace." As he was about to leave office the final time, Newsweek magazine surveyed the nation's governors, asking them to rate the best and the brightest among them; Wallace, by far the elder statesman of the group, did not receive a single vote.
On Jan. 19, 1987, the day Wallace left office, his final public act was to swear in his son, George Wallace Jr., as state treasurer.
Gone finally from politics, he was 67 and ready to take another job in Montgomery, as chairman of public administration for Troy State University, a fund-raising post that afforded him badly needed health insurance and initially paid him $80,000-plus a year.
Wallace was by all accounts not a wealthy man. He might have turned his head as brother Gerald and other cronies enriched themselves with state contracts during his years as governor, but no one ever accused him of benefiting financially, beyond his salary, from public office.
In his job with Troy State, the former governor sometimes would make it to the office, but often was at home confined to bed, weary and still fighting the pain from the assassination attempt.
In September 1995, Wallace was 76. And Troy State officials, citing budgetary limitations, said they couldn't afford his $84,000-a-year services anymore. Wallace retired one final time, with a $71,000 pension and the still-needed full health insurance.
Wallace lived alone - he had divorced his second and third wives - save for a black valet, who was almost always present to tend to his personal needs, and a State Trooper bodyguard. Old friends would sometimes drop by to visit and try to bolster his spirits.
Like the stooped Confederate veterans he heard as a boy, Wallace seemed most to enjoy recalling the glories of long-faded campaigns, particularly the presidential drives when he commanded the nation's attention.
Sometimes he was confined to bed, too ill to see the friends who came by.
Wallace's son and three daughters would frequently visit, as would former aide Carr, who often brought an historical biography for him to read until his eyes grew too poor to make out the print.
Meanwhile, Wallace and his friends formed a foundation and raised money in hopes of constructing in Montgomery the George and Lurleen Wallace Center for the Study of Southern Politics.
As his days on earth neared an end, Wallace brooded about his place in history. Sometimes, with a trace of bitterness in his voice, he would complain that time had redeemed his segregationist contemporaries but not him.
He would recall Lyndon Johnson's days as a segregationist U.S. senator from Texas, forgetting the critical role LBJ later played as president to pass landmark civil rights laws.
Johnson himself once lectured Wallace about how history might judge him. In "Remembering America," former LBJ aide Richard Goodwin recalls a famous Johnson-Wallace oval office meeting, which took place in March 1965, as Alabama resisted black efforts in Selma to register to vote.
"Now listen, George," LBJ chided Wallace, "don't think about 1968; you think about 1988. You and me, we'll be dead and gone then, George. Now, you've got a lot of poor people down there in Alabama, a lot of ignorant people. You can do a lot for them, George. Your president will help you. What do you want left after you when you die? Do you want a great big marble monument that reads, "George Wallace - He Built'? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board lying across that harsh, caliche soil, that reads, "George Wallace - He Hated?' "
No, Wallace insisted years later, he had changed, too, just like the others who at one time had vigorously supported the separation of the races. For some, however, it was still hard to forget what many considered to be the raw racism that marked his rise to power and was the source of his prominence.
Wallace's fragile health was as precarious as ever. In October, 1992, he contracted a blood infection. Doctors publicly gave him only a 20 percent chance of surviving, but the Fightin' Little Judge, who also suffered from Parkinson's disease, recovered.
On some days when he could muster the strength, he would have his attendants dress and drive him in his ambulance-style van for one more visit with the folks down home in Barbour County or out to a favorite Montgomery restaurant.
As more time passed, some wondered whether Wallace had been a tragic figure. As a mature politician, he had made many of the wrong choices. Yes, he had changed, but there were other factors to consider.
"He certainly had enormous, extraordinary, almost super-human energies, but whether energy is character is another question," writer Frady says. "If there were great stores of character there, an extraordinary inner being, you could think of Wallace as being tragic. It's a matter of what was lost. Maybe in a way he was pathetic and ironic."
Journalist Jenkins has a more compassionate view:
"The central thing about Wallace was that he labored under what (scholar) Vann Woodward called the Curse of Southern History. I think he tried to escape the burden of racial politics, but in 1958 he found he couldn't escape, and he made a Faustian bargain.
"He was a tragic figure in the sense that, in order to be elected governor of Alabama, he had to do things that forever would make him unelectable as president," Jenkins says. "I think the driving force behindGeorge Wallace was this sense of Southern inferiority. Wallace felt that inferiority, manipulated those fears and exploited them."
In March 1995, Wallace carried the conversion of his segregationist past to a new level when he symbolically sat in his wheelchair in a schoolhouse door in Montgomery and warmly greeted black marchers, commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march.
Wallace still could be feisty. In an interview with The Star during his last term as governor, he dismissed the notion that his shooting in 1972 amounted to some kind of cosmic punishment for past sins.
"I don't believe God acts in that manner," he said firmly. "God brings only good. He created a world in which He gave people free choice. The devil brings evil, and you choose which one you want to serve ... if getting shot was caused by not being what I should have been, like most people, a lot more people would get shot."
George Wallace often avoided talking about such things. He never had been an introspective man in public. But after being gunned down he had declared himself a born-again Christian. He was known to read the Bible regularly.
He insisted to the end that he had never been a racist - "I never was a hater" - just another Southern segregationist. It was a classic example of what historian Dan Carter described as Wallace's "remarkable capacity for self-deception."
Anyone who had seen and heard Wallace when he was healthy and in his prime couldn't forget him; could never forget the arrogant, demagogic defiance, the energetic, calculated ambition that had consumed him. Wallace himself may never have been a hater, but there is little doubt that his blistering, cross-burning rhetoric had incited those who were.
In his final years, of course, Wallace's thoughts sometimes dwelled on more important matters.
"You can always say what might have been," Wallace told The Star as his days in office dwindled. "Really, in the long run, what you do on this earth is important, in the sense that you're supposed to do good works. But the most important day in a man's life is the day he dies. Where is his soul going? It makes no difference that you gain the whole world, if you lose your own soul.
"You can be president 10 times, governor 100 times. What does it profit you, gain the whole world, lose your own soul?"
After his words trailed off into silence, I gently asked him where he thought his soul would go.
His voice was weak. He was clearly in pain, as he had been every minute of every day since the 1972 assassination attempt. But George Corley Wallace glanced up from his wheelchair and responded firmly:
"I believe I'm going to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven."