On June 11, 1963 Alabama Governor George Wallace became a national symbol for racial segregation by blocking the doors of a school to physically prevent the integration of Alabama schools. According to the Alabama Department of Archives, Governor Wallace “stood in the door-way to block the attempt of two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, to register at the University of Alabama. President John F. Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard, and ordered its units to the university campus. Wallace then stepped aside and returned to Montgomery, allowing the students to enter.” Unfortunately, the way Wallace defended what he did compromised the promotion of political and religious liberty for the generations that followed.
At the standoff, Wallace defended his actions by an official proclamation saying:
As Governor and Chief Magistrate of the State of Alabama I deem it to be my solemn obligation and duty to stand before you representing the rights and sovereignty of this State and its peoples.
The unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama today of the might of the Central Government offers frightful example of the oppression of the rights, privileges and sovereignty of this State by officers of the Federal Government. This intrusion results solely from force, or threat of force, undignified by any reasonable application of the principle of law, reason and justice. It is important that the people of this State and nation understand that this action is in violation of rights reserved to the State by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Alabama. While some few may applaud these acts, millions of Americans will gaze in sorrow upon the situation existing at this great institution of learning. . .
I stand here today, as Governor of this sovereign State, and refuse to willingly submit to illegal usurpation of power by the Central Government. I claim today for all the people of the State of Alabama those rights reserved to them under the Constitution of the United States.
If you read the proclamation carefully you will see that there is no mention of a racialized motivation for blocking the doors. The proclamation reads as a defense of limited government and state’s rights. It reads as a defense of liberty and the sovereignty of states to operate without the meddling of the federal government. It reads as a challenge to the ever-expanding power of the federal government. It reads as a defense of representative government–a defense of federalism. It reads as a defense for liberty. Herein, then, lies the problem: not only did Governor Wallace use many of the themes used by those who champion liberty as a means of defending the segregationist views of many in the South, much of the language was permanently associated with “racism” in the minds of many blacks in South.
For example, my parents were in their 20s in the South during the civil-rights movement and the only people they heard talking about “limited government,” “State’s rights,” the expansion of the federal government, and the like, were primarily those who embraced racial segregation for racist reasons. After all, when John F. Kennedy used the coercive power of federal government to force the issue in Alabama, Wallace found himself pressured to fulfill his gubernatorial inaugural promise of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Those words would not only permanently define Wallace but they would also permanently be associated with racism in the minds of many Southern blacks. For my parent’s generation, the limited government camp is the racist camp. They are one in the same. Therefore, when people ask me why it is that many blacks today, although socially conservative on many issues, continue to vote for progressive and contemporary liberal candidates, I point them to speeches like the one Wallace gave. Even in 2013, when many Southern blacks of my parent’s generation hear rhetoric about “limited government” and “going back to the Constitution,” and the like, they don’t think back to John Locke and the Federalism Papers, they think back to George Wallace and the language of liberty that was used to defend Jim Crow laws.
My father was raised in Jim Crow Alabama and my mother was raised in Jim Crow North Carolina and the stories I have heard of their life were nothing less than traumatic. Having to live one’s life under the threat of potential harm and injustice significantly alters one’s worldview and associations. There are certain trigger words, phrases, concepts, and ideas used by conservatives and classical liberals today that take many of my parent’s generation back to Jim Crow America. This is, in part, why conservatives are so often accused of being racist at the outset when discussing limiting the power of government. Many blacks will just assume it is motivated by racism. I write this not to justify or validate the negative association but to simply note that it is an unfortunate state of affairs for some. As the saying goes, “it is what it is.” As such, in the 1970s, I was raised to never trust any white person who talked about “limited government” principles because they were likely racist (like the Southern whites who supported Jim Crow) and wanted to do me harm. It is easy to see that what happened in the 1950s and 1960s was the expansion of the powers of the federal government in intending to remedy an injustice that would come to make matters worse for many African-Americans in the 1970s and 1980s.
The overall lesson from Wallace’s speech is simply this: for those who seek to promote the cause of liberty in African American contexts, they need to be aware of past associations and, therefore, need to be creative about the language used to promote religious, economic, and political liberty in the future because some in the past have inadvertently muddled the cause.