Wallace, Thornton, and Drive-By Truckers: Some Sources on Alabama History

By Colin Woodward

George Wallace

For a few months this past winter, I was immersed in all things Alabama. Over the holidays, I finished Dan Carter’s terrific biography of George Wallace, The Politics of Rage. The only complaint I had with the book is that Carter finished it while Wallace was still alive. I would have liked to have read a chapter about Wallace’s death and his political legacy, especially given the rage many politicians–not to mention their constituents–have been in since the fall of 2008.

ImageCarter shows that Wallace, while an extreme politician, represented the views of not just the far Right, but many American conservatives. In the 1960s, Wallace found friends in places like Wisconsin, which, despite being the home of progressives like Bob La Follette, also has its share of conservatives. American politics, Carter shows, isn’t so much purple (a blend of red and blue states) as it is schizophrenic.

When Wallace gave a speech at Harvard during the height of the civil rights struggle, Ivy Leaguers found him impassioned, clever, even charming. Wallace was many things, but he was no dummy. Northern intellectuals were expecting a freak, and what they encountered was a brilliant–albeit especially nasty–politician.

Wallace was fairly progressive as an Alabama judge. It was only when he wanted to “out-nigger” (Wallace’s term, page 96) his competition in the race for governor in 1962 that he became the symbol of white opposition to racial integration. He made headlines and gave the Kennedy family fits. Still, the man had no chance of ever becoming president–any more than Huey Long did in the 1930s.

American Demagogues

Wallace was perhaps the last in a long line of southern demagogue governors like Long, Orval Faubus, and Lester Maddox. Wallace, like Long, was a spoiler. Long, however, never exploited the “negro question” to his advantage. His issues centered on class, not race. Yet, the Kingfish knew how to win publicity, even if that meant notoriety. And both Long and Wallace found themselves on the wrong end of an assassin’s bullet. Long was murdered by a deranged doctor; Wallace was nearly killed by a disturbed loner, whose life became the model of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver.

From Carter’s book, we come to know Wallace very well, even understand him. But Carter does not sympathize with him. His anti-Wallace feelings are clear, though balanced. Wallace could be a mean SOB who had any number of redneck goons (Klansmen as well as others) willing to do his bidding, which meant cracking the heads of civil rights workers and practicing all kinds of dirty tricks. Anyone familiar with the Jim Crow South will not be surprised at how far white Alabamans went to uphold the racial status quo. However, even Wallace’s 1970 campaign for governor–by which time one would think Alabama had cooled off–was shocking and vile in its race-baiting.

Carter’s book is about as fair an account of Wallace as one could read. It would be absurd to accuse him of mistreating his subject. Wallace was a fascinating figure, but he was hardly one to appeal to the “better angels of our nature.”

A leaflet from the 1970 governor’s race in Alabama. From Carter’s book, The Politics of Rage.

Antebellum Alabama

From Carter’s biography I moved on to J. Mills Thornton’s Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860, which I have wanted to read for a long time. It’s one of those books a lot of historians finish in graduate school. But I’m glad I waited, because much of it likely would have gone over my head when I was in my early-20s. It’s a classic work, though a long and dense one.

Thornton says antebellum Alabama was a place “obsessed” with slavery, but he doesn’t devote most of his study to the politics of race (unlike Carter). Thornton mostly takes Alabamans’ pro-slavery convictions for granted. The state had nearly 50% of its population enslaved in 1860, and large planters dominated the state’s “Black Belt” (so named for its dark, rich soil, not its large African American population). Ideologically, the state developed during the Jacksonian period, when southern Democrats (and Whigs, too) were firmly pro-slavery.


Where Alabamans differed among themselves, Thornton shows, was in regard to the state’s economic outlook. The antebellum period was a time when new markets spread across the country with the help of steam locomotives and railroads, rich and vast farmland luring settlers west, and slave labor. Alabama didn’t achieve statehood until 1819, but by 1860, it could boast of rapid gains in education, finance, and infrastructure. The 1850s was a boom-time for the South. Southerners built more railroads in that decade than northerners did. Cotton production made some men vast fortunes, and even the lower classes were pursuing the American Dream in Alabama, which meant money gained through growing cotton and buying slaves.

Amid so many changes, Alabama politicians were concerned with issues of how much to spend and what to spend it on. As is the case today, there were those who wanted to expand and improve infrastructure and education, while others sought to keep government and state budgets very small. There were Whigs, many of them planters, who were more pro-government, though they usually saw government expansion chiefly as a means of helping business. Nevertheless, Alabama’s government only got bigger in the antebellum period. It began spending on education, though it was far behind states like Massachusetts, which established public education in the 1780s. By 1860, Alabama’s government–though tiny by today’s standards–could boast of significant achievements.

Secession, Thornton argues, was not a response to a weakening economic position for the South, but a gamble based on the idea that flush times would continue, provided southerners could pursue their interest free of northern interference. True, Alabamans feared Lincoln’s election would lead to abolition and slave unrest, but they felt they were acting from a position of strength, not weakness. A strong South must secede before the North enslaved its white population.

When it came to secession, Thornton argues that the only meaningful difference was between immediate secessionists (including men such as the Fire-eater William L. Yancey) and conditional Unionists, who dwelt more in Alabama’s northern, less slave-holding hill country. Thornton warns against reading back into the secession crisis for a strong Union contingent in the state. Unionists emerged during the war to be sure, when many whites grew angry and disillusioned with the Confederacy because of battlefield losses and harsh government measures. But Alabama’s Democrats, the author shows, were united during the secession winter.

Alabama society, Thornton shows, was a democratic one born of the Jacksonian era, when most adult white male southerners were–for the first time–allowed to vote and where people were highly suspicious of concentrated power. Politicians were responsive to the people. They made sure banks or other politicians didn’t become too powerful, even if that meant undermining economic development. Alabama had a high turnover rate for its representatives. These were not career politicians who were making decisions for the state.

Obviously, Alabama was not as democratic as it is today. Women, blacks, and Native Americans could not vote. But for its time, Alabama was democratic. Secession was not a conspiracy of planter elites, but a revolution of the people. The war that broke out was, Thornton states, the playing out of a “Jacksonian drama” in which the yeomen and planters played equal parts.

The Boys from Alabama

In January, as a conclusion of sorts to my foray into Alabama history and culture, I went to the Drive-By Truckers show in Little Rock. I’ve posted about the Truckers, who originally are from the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama, before. It might seem odd to blog about Dan Carter, J. Mills Thornton, and the Truckers in one essay, but they are not all that far apart, really.

The Truckers have written songs about George Wallace, who casts a long and dark shadow over Alabama. The band hails from the feisty hill country that Thornton talks about in Politics and Power, and the Truckers are exceptional in the sense of region and history they bring to their songs. The Truckers represent post-modern country at its finest, but the band also is made up of songwriters who seem to have old souls.

The Drive-By Truckers in Little Rock, 2013.

I had seen the Truckers before in Richmond, Virginia. And I must say, that while the Truckers are always fun to watch, the Richmond show was better. When I saw them in January, the Truckers were not having a good week. Their merchandise man, Craig Lieske, had died suddenly a few days before. Front-man Patterson Hood had had his beloved acoustic guitar stolen in Missouri (though he eventually got it back). The Truckers give you your money’s worth, but something seemed missing.

When I saw the band in Richmond, they still had bass player and singer Shonna Tucker, who is no longer with the band, as well as John Neff, who provides great guitar work, especially his slide playing. The Truckers’ new bass player is Matt Patton, who played well in Little Rock. But I miss Shonna, who balanced the heavy testosterone provided by founding members Patteron and Cooley with a much-needed female point-of-view. Former band member Jason Isbell has enjoyed success as a solo act with his band the 400 Unit. I hope Shonna will record something soon with her new band Eye Candy.

Drive-By Truckers’ 2013 Little Rock show.

Another problem I had with the Truckers show was the set consisted mostly of the band’s older songs. The boys played a lot from Decoration Day, which, while a good album, I don’t admire nearly as much as some of the other Truckers’ records. There was very little from the post-A Blessing and a Curse period. I also didn’t think the band’s sound was great. Perhaps it had much to do with the venue. The Rev Room is pretty small. It was great that I was only a few feet from the stage. But often, the songs sounded like a ball of noise.

When I saw the Truckers in Richmond, the venue was bigger, the sound better, and the show more dramatic. Back in 2010, the band was touring in support of The Big To-Do (which I find underrated), and they played in front of a large, Gothic canvas done by the painter Wes Freed. In a moving end to the Richmond show, the band played “Angels and Fuselage”–about the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash. One-by-one, the band members walked off the stage, leaving only the drummer pounding an ominous beat before silence descended.

I haven’t seen much of Alabama. I’ve been through it only a few times. Had things turned out differently as I was finishing grad school, I might be teaching at Auburn-Montgomery rather than living in Little Rock. But that didn’t work out. Hopefully, in the long run, I won’t have to experience Alabama only through books. Mobile, for one, looks interesting. And there’s always history to be had wherever you visit.


Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

Dan T. Carter, George Wallace, and the “Duality of the Southern Thing”

By Colin Woodward

I recently started reading Dan T. Carter’s book, The Politics of Rage, which examines the life and political career of the Alabama Governor, who infamously said in 1963 that he wanted “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Wallace gained national headlines for standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama in 1963, trying in vain to prevent the integration of the college. He also ran for president several times, running most famously on a “Law and Order” platform in 1968. He was forced to live the rest of his life in a wheelchair after a failed assassination attempt wounded him during his 1972 campaign. Yet, despite being paralyzed by Arthur Bremer’s bullet, Wallace would run again in 1976 (the same year the film Taxi Driver, inspired by Bremer came out). Altogether, Wallace was governor of Alabama for sixteen years, a record unmatched except by a former governor of Iowa.

Wallace’s stamp on the history of southern politics is clear, and in Carter, he has a worthy biographer. Dan T. Carter might just be the greatest living southern historian. He has written not just about twentieth century race relations, as in his terrific Bancroft Prize-winning book Scottsboro, but the Reconstruction Era. His When the War was Over is one of the best books I’ve read on Reconstruction and the white backlash after the Civil War. Carter also has a somewhat personal connection to Wallace. He grew up in South Carolina, but he is a distant relative to Asa Earl Carter, a Klansman and speech writer to Wallace (he is also the author of the story that became the film Outlaw Josey Wales and, oddly, the children’s book, Education of Little Tree, about a Native American boy).

Carter is too good of a historian to portray Wallace as merely a race-baiting demagogue. And the Wallace story isn’t that simple. I’m only about 40 pages into the book, and Wallace has yet to enter the military during World War II. So far, there is little to suggest the future governor was ardently racist. As a young man, he grew up in a small racially-mixed town in Alabama, where he excelled at boxing (his favorite picture of himself involved him giving a gloved opponent a bloody nose) and had a lifelong thirst for politics. As was Huey Long before him, Wallace was a born hustler and politician. Unlike Long, however, he made racial politics the lynchpin of his pursuit of power. It’s that decision that is central to the Wallace story.

Back in 2000, the Alabama southern rock band Drive-By Truckers made an album called Southern Rock Opera, which uses Wallace as inspiration for a couple songs. Unlike Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (a cartoonish anthem for redneck pride), the Truckers make more than a passing reference to the governor. The Truckers’ take on Alabama, furthermore, is far more nuanced than Skynyrd’s ever was. In the spoken-word song “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” the band’s chief songwriter Patterson Hood discusses Wallace’s early, fairly progressive career, which was eclipsed by his opportunistic stand for segregation, even after the Brown v. Board decision made the destruction of Jim Crow inevitable. “Icons” also examines Wallace’s conversion to a more moderate political stance, which enabled him to get a vast majority of the black vote in later gubernatorial campaigns. The Truckers dub Wallace’s appeal to so many people as example of the “duality of the southern thing.”

Even so, the Truckers talk about George Wallace being in hell (where the devil brews him some sweet tea)–not for his racism necessarily, but his sheer ambition at the expense of black civil rights. After all, not everyone who supported civil rights was racially enlightened. Could Wallace have been another LBJ, a man who grew up prejudiced but came down on the side of promoting, rather than blocking, civil rights? Perhaps. But Wallace didn’t, and we are left with the legacy of a man who became a spokesman for segregation.

The Wallace story is further complicated by the redefining of “conservatism” in America. Wallace was a lifelong Democrat, but his rise to power coincided with a realignment that occurred in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s. In that time, southern Democrats began migrating to the Republican Party, something helped greatly by Sunbelt conservatives Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Wallace was a creature of the Solid South, which had been strongly Democratic from the mid-19th century up through the mid-20th. But his views found a home in the new, very southern Republican Party.

African Americans would remain Democrat after the civil rights movement, but it was the big government-based Great Society that drove so many white politicians from the Democratic fold. While most white politicians were too shrewd to allow themselves to lapse into Wallace-like language about African Americans, many learned to speak in racial code. They could, however, be much more open, as was Wallace, about being tough-on-crime stance and their evangelical faith. Today, Wallace would, no doubt, be a Republican.

In his book’s introduction, Carter discusses Wallace’s late life conversion to moderation and wonders how real it was. By the 1980s, many people had softened toward Wallace, a fact helped by his obviously weakened physical condition. Many people, even African Americans, seemed willing to forgive his racist past.  I’m not sure if Carter will be as forgiving, but that’s something I’ll find out as I read more.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.


Young Black Men Accused in the Scottsboro Rape Case

By Colin Woodward

For me, the two most interesting aspects of American history are race and war. Recently, I finished reading Dan Carter’s terrific book, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. Somehow, I made it through graduate school without ever reading this book. The research is impressive, and it reads like a novel. The story recounts the trial of black youths in Alabama who were accused of rape in the 1930s. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, all-white juries repeatedly convicted the boys. And back then, the death penalty was the punishment for a black man who had raped a white woman. Ultimately, none of the boys were executed, but in the long process of winning their release (which, for one of the defendants, did not happen until the 1950s), some of the boys grew to adulthood in prison.

carter scottsboro

Carter skillfully narrates the events of the trials and retrials of the case. Alabama was dripping with racial tensions during the trial. But Carter also shows how divided were those who defended the Scottsboro nine. Initially, the NAACP campaigned to defend the boys, but the ILD (International Labor Defense) acted as counsel. Thus, compounding racial tensions were accusations that the boys were defended by communists. Their chief counsel, Samuel Liebowitz, was a Jewish lawyer from New York, and he endured quite a bit of scorn from the southern public and press. Liebowitz, however, was a brilliant lawyer, who did the best he could with racist white juries. Ironically, white racism actually helped one of the defendants. At one point, one of the Scottsboro boys is convicted but not given the death penalty. Why the “leniency”? One of the jurors believed a black man naturally couldn’t help himself from attacking a white person and so couldn’t be held morally culpable the way a white man would have been.

Scottsboro is the second book I’ve read by Carter, who I find to be one of the more underrated American historians. I quite enjoyed his book When the War Was Over, which shows the difficulty Republicans had in subduing the white backlash against Presidential Reconstruction. I look forward to reading Carter’s book on George Wallace.


Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He published his first book, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War in 2014 through University of Virginia Press.