The role of the politician’s wife is often reserved for photo opts. In most cases the spouse is more likable then the candidate. Lurleen Wallace played the role of the politician’s wife throughout the 1950-60s. That is until her husband, the Alabama Governor George Wallace, ran her for office in a desperate attempt to hold on to power.
Lurleen Burns grew up in a working class family in Northport, Alabama. Upon meeting George Wallace in her senior year of High School in 1942 their paths were intertwined. They married and had their first child before George left for war in 1943. After returning George won a seat in the Alabama House of Representatives and began his political ascent.
During his time in the legislature and as a circuit judge, George Wallace held moderate views on race. He tethered his political fortunes to the governor at the time, Big Jim Folsom, a larger than life character that ran as a New Deal style liberal and promoted spending on schools and investing in the state infrastructure.
In 1958 George Wallace made his first run for the Governor’s office running much on the legacy of Folsom. The politics of the state were shifting by the late 1950s with race issues becoming a galvanizing force. Wallace lost to Attorney General John Patterson, who ran aggressively on the race issue. After the election Wallace sat with his staff and told them, “John Patterson out-niggauhed me. And boys, I’m not goin’ to be out-nigguhed again.”
From the loss in 1958 to when he ran again for governor and won in 1962 Wallace put his family through hell. He moved the family from a nice home in Clayton to a “low-rent” place in Montgomery. The family felt isolated and unneeded. He went weeks without seeing them, spending much of his time drinking and womanizing. Lurleen threatened to leave him over neglect of their marriage. He was able to talk her out of divorce with promises of change, saving their marriage and his political career.
In his 1963 inaugural address he shouted “segregation now…segregation tomorrow ... segregation forever!” throwing the hammer down in the struggle for civil rights. In 1963 he battled the Kennedy administration on the admittance of a black student to a state college, which only folded as federal force was applied. He always made a scene, letting everyone know where he stood regardless of the outcome. The spectacle gave him national notoriety and invitations to speech at colleges throughout the country. It was in these trips north that he rationalized entering a couple Democratic primaries in the 1964 election.
As George sought more power nationally he was stymied at home. At the time a governor in Alabama could only serve one consecutive term. Through allies in the legislature, he tried to change the law to allow him to run again in 1966. The move was a step too far for many in the state, and he failed in changing the state constitution to hold on to power.
Lurleen’s life as a homemaker and first lady of Alabama did not prepare her for the campaign. She was thought of as shy and not comfortable with public speaking. Despite that she easily won the Democratic nomination and the general election.
Marshall Frady in the paramount Wallace describes a scene during the 1966 election that captures the weight of what Wallace put Lurleen through.
“While Wallace himself spoke, she sat off to one side in a corner of the platform, looking blank and irrelevant and a bit bored, gazing fixedly over the heads of the crowds, as if she were musing on grocery lists and school clothes for her children Wallace’s voice blared electronically in the twilight…Her expression did not change. She sat rigidly and a little primly, as if she hadn’t heard, her hands in her lap, still gazing off into nothing. The wind feathered her hair. And suddenly one had the impression that when it was all over, when Wallace’s people had gotten back in their cars and the townsfold had scattered, she would still be sitting up there on that platform, all alone, straight, composed, smiling vaguely, gazing blankly off into the distance, to be hauled away finally with the platform to the next town.”
In 1965 Lurleen had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. She began radiation therapy in December 1965 and a hysterectomy in January 1966. It was in this condition that Lurleen spent hours at a time campaigning. In 1967 surgery was needed to remove a large growth from her colon. In January 1968 she was diagnosed with pelvic tumor. Her health was worsening and she needed desperately to rest.
As cancer spread throughout Lurleen’s body in early 1968 George Wallace was running for president again, this time as an independent. On the trail he paraded her around proudly claiming she had fought cancer and won. He may have been engaging in wishful thinking, because on May 7, 1968 she died.
The death of Lurleen shocked Wallace and the state. But not more then a few weeks later he continued his fruitless run for the White House. He would marry 2 more times over the years, once to governor Folsom’s niece Cornelia, but both times ended in divorce.