AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever, it was just a single line in a speech given 50 years ago today. But it's remembered as one of the most vehement rallying cries against racial equality in American history. The year was 1963. Civil rights activists were fighting for equal access to schools and the voting booth, and the federal government was preparing to intervene in many Southern states. In Montgomery, Alabama, newly elected Governor George Wallace stepped to the podium to deliver his inaugural address.
Producers Samara Freemark and Joe Richman of Radio Dairies have this audio history.
WAYNE GREENHAW: My name is Wayne Greenhaw. I was a newspaper reporter in Montgomery, Alabama back in the 1060s.
DR. JAMES V. POE JR.: I was a student activist. And my name is Dr. James V. Poe, Jr.
DAN CARTER: My name is Dan Carter. I wrote a biography of George Wallace.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS DEMOCRAT, GEORGIA: My name is John Lewis. I'm a member of the House of Representatives. And I remember the speech very well.
GOVERNOR GEORGE WALLACE: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. This is the inaugurate day of my inauguration as governor of the state of Alabama...
GREENHAW: George Wallace was inaugurated on the steps of the capitol. The streets were packed, all his followers from all over the state crowding around the platform; and many of them wearing these white flowers, which were meant to symbolize their commitment to white supremacy.
JR.: Blacks were not invited to attend. It was open to the public. Anyone in the public, but we were not the public.
CARTER: All of the major networks covered his inaugural address on national television. And that really catapulted him onto the national scene. So he proceeds to milk that for everything that he can.
WALLACE: Let us send this message back to Washington by our representatives who are here with us today, that from this day we are standing up, and the heel of tyranny does not fit the neck of an upright man.
GREENHAW: He was putting on a show. He marched back and forth, shook his fist. He was promising that he was going to stand alone for the Southern cause, the cause of the white people.
WALLACE: That we, not the insipid black...
GREENHAW: It's vehement. It's mean spirited. It's hateful. But how he said it was magnificent.
WALLACE: But if we amalgamated into the one unit, as advocated by the communist philosophers, then the enrichment of our lives, the freedom of our development is gone forever. We become therefore a mongrel unit of one, under a single...
CARTER: For the white Southerners who were standing out there in that freezing cold and stomping their feet, finally there was somebody who was saying what they felt; who was expressing their deepest fears about what was going to happen.
WALLACE: We can no longer hide our head...
CARTER: They wanted that anger and they wanted somebody to express it. And Wallace was the one that did it.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
JR.: He said no matter what the Supreme Court said in Brown v. the Board of Education, no matter what the federal government is saying, we will continue to exercise state's rights. And we will continue to segregate.
WALLACE: Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us, and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South...
GEORGIA: I took it very personal. My governor, this elected official, was saying in effect, you are not welcome, you are not welcome.
WALLACE: 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 and segregation forever.
GEORGIA: Words can be very powerful. Words can be dangerous. Governor Wallace never pulled a trigger. He never fired a gun. But in his speech, he created the environment for others to pull the trigger in the days, the weeks and months to come.
JR.: We began to feel the sting of the speech. People night-riding and burning crosses. The police beat down people and ran over them with horses, put tear gas on them.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This march will not continue.
GEORGIA: And later during the same year, we witnessed the bombing of a church, where four little girls were killed on a Sunday morning. This was a very difficult and dark time in the American South.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) Let's win, win, win, win, Wallace. And help him pave the way...
GREENHAW: Segregation now, segregation forever became Wallace's symbol. Before Wallace made that speech, the editorial page editor of the Montgomery Advertiser tried to get Wallace to take out that part. Much later in life, he probably wished he had taken it out.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) Let's win, win, win, win...
CARTER: George Wallace was elected Alabama in the next election and would continue to be over much of his lifetime. He ran for president four times and he did very well. Whether it was racial backlash or hostility to the national government, the social issues, no one played it better than Wallace did. But he would never hold national political office.
Most Americans, what they know about George Wallace is: Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever. That line is so iconic, so important. And George Wallace was on the wrong side of history.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Stand back ladies and gentlemen. Get out of the way. Move.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: George Wallace was shot down this afternoon as he campaigned in Maryland, not far from Washington.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The 52-year-old Wallace had just finished talking to a crowd at a shopping center and had stepped from behind a bulletproof podium when the shots rang out.
CARTER: In May of 1972, George Wallace is shot five times. His spinal cord was badly damaged by one of the bullets and he's paralyzed.
JR.: One has to wonder if, sitting in that wheelchair, maybe he had a chance to contemplate.
GEORGIA: A few short years later, after I got to Congress, Governor Wallace heard that I was going to be in Alabama. He said, John Lewis, will you come by, talk with me? And I remember the occasion so well. It was like someone confessing to their priest or to a minister. He wanted people to forgive him. He said, I never hated anybody. I never hated any black people. He said, Mr. Lewis, I'm sorry. And I said, well, Governor, I accept your apology.
JR.: Being the type of person I am, out of my heart, out of my soul, I can forgive George Wallace, yes. Heaven's sakes, I forgive him. But forget? No. Never. Never.
WALLACE: I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet...
GEORGIA: I tell you, since then, I often think about what Governor Wallace said in that speech.
WALLACE: ...segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.
GEORGIA: Does it hurt me? No. In the end, I think George Wallace was one of the signs on this long journey towards the creation of a better America, toward the creation of a more perfect union. It was just one of the stumbling blocks along the way.
CORNISH: In his later years, George Wallace reached out to civil rights activists and appeared in black churches to ask forgiveness. In his last election as governor of Alabama in 1982, he won with more than 90 percent of the black vote.
Our story was produced Samara Freemark and Joe Richman of Radio Dairies, with help from Ben Shapiro and edited by Deborah George. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.