Racism Coming and Going: The Cases of Sen. Tom Watson and Gov. George Wallace

Consider the case of Senator Thomas E. Watson of Georgia (1856-1922), whose political (and journalism) career spanned many decades, beginning prior to the disfranchisement movement in the South and concluding after disfranchisement was a fait accompli. The Tom Watson of the 1880s was a passionate fusion populist, seeking to unite poor whites and poor African Americans in order to gain what he saw as their fair share of the South’s then-meager resources. For reasons beyond Watson’s control, within a few years, African Americans had been effectively disfranchised in Georgia. Attempting to appeal to the African-American vote was therefore no longer a useful strategy for an ambitious office seeker like Watson. At that point, he began to voice his approval of disfranchisement. By the 1910s and 1920s, Watson had morphed into one of the most virulent racists one could ever encounter. Referring to “the Negro,” he remarked, “In the South, we have to lynch him occasionally, and flog him, now and then, to keep him from blaspheming the Almighty, by his conduct, on account of his smell and his color.”

Compare Watson’s career with that of Alabama Governor George Corley Wallace (1919-1998). Wallace straddled the other end of the history of African-American disfranchisement. After being elected governor for the first time, he said the following in his January 14, 1963 inaugural address:

“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.”

But that was before the success of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In just a few short years, African-American voter registration had skyrocketed in Alabama. By the 1970s, he was asking forgiveness for his past sins. And, in a remarkable turn of events, he largely received it. He was re-elected to a third term as governor in 1982 with a huge share (90%) of African-American votes.

Colman McCarthy was among those who thought Wallace’s transformation to be sincere. He wrote in 1995:

“In the annals of religious and political conversions, few shiftings were

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