Open Letter to the Children and Grandchildren of George C. Wallace, Jr.
Updated: Mar 28, 2019
March 26, 2019
Dear Wallace Family Members,
Many things have been written and said about former Alabama Gov. George Corley Wallace, Jr. His legacy as Alabama’s most famous governor is shaped by these six words: "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!"
You knew him as a father and grandfather. My father knew him, as well. As president of Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama from 1962 to 1981, my father, Dr. Levi Watkins, Sr., and Gov. Wallace got to know each other on an up-close and personal basis. During the height of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama in 1965, Wallace and my father forged a bond that stood the test of time.
Following the tear gassing and beatings Colonel Al Lingo and his state troopers administered to non-violent protestors at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on “Bloody Sunday” (March 7, 1965), civil rights activists from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (“SNCC”) took over the campus of Alabama State and were looking for another bloody confrontation with Lingo and his state troopers. This kind of violence would bring national attention to SNCC and further its cause.
Die-hard segregationists wanted Col. Lingo to “clean up” the Alabama State campus – at any cost. Students, faculty and staff members were in full sympathy with the “Movement.” Emotions were running high and the situation was ripe for violence and bloodshed.
Under enormous pressure to restore order, Lingo considered coming onto campus to root out the demonstrators and “outside agitators.” This was a recipe for a massacre.
By April 23, 1965, the situation on campus had reached a boiling point; it was a time bomb awaiting Col. Lingo’s “riot squad.” Lingo was ready to move on the situation and let my father know that state trooper action was imminent. He was coming on campus to restore “law and order.”
My father asked to see Lingo at the Public Safety Department Office in the Capitol Complex before his state troopers came on campus that morning. Lingo agreed to a meeting but told my father “you’d better get down here quick.”
On his way to Col. Lingo’s office, my father decided that speaking to him would do no good. After all, Lingo was still on an emotional high from “Bloody Sunday.” Instead, my father decided to appeal directly to Gov. Wallace for help in defusing the situation. Father believed that a direct appeal to Wallace was the only chance he had to prevent violence.
Somehow, my father never felt that George Wallace was a racist. From his years of personal and professional contact with Wallace, father was convinced that the governor acted like a racist and said racist things solely for political reasons. Wallace never displayed racism to my father in their personal interaction and was always respectful to him.
My father asked Wallace to stop Col. Lingo from sending state troopers on campus. With no trooper action, father felt the situation would soon run its course and end without violence. He reminded Wallace of the tear gas and billy clubs Lingo’s troopers used at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. My father also reminded Wallace how he had temporarily lost control over Lingo on “Bloody Sunday.” Father predicted far worse violence would occur if Lingo and his state troopers were allowed to enter Alabama State’s campus.
At first, Wallace denied my father’s request. Then father told him: “Governor, I’ve done what I could to avoid a massacre. I’m sorry you won’t help me. Blood will flow today on the Alabama State campus. Your children will never outlive the damage done to the Wallace name. My conscious will be clean. At least, I will have done all I could. Thanks for seeing me.”
As my father was leaving the meeting, Cecil Jackson, the Governor’s legal advisor shouted for him to “wait a minute.” Jackson reminded Wallace that a joint committee of the Senate and House were meeting in Wallace’s office in a few minutes. Jackson proposed that the committee be allowed to hear my father’s request and, with the committee’s concurrence, Wallace should reconsider father’s request. Wallace agreed.
Wallace briefed the committee on the deteriorating and potentially violent situation at Alabama State. Then, he allowed my father to make a direct appeal to the committee for support.
Father asked for black police officers as an alternative to Col. Lingo’s infamous all-white state troopers.” Father added that he did not wish to crush the protest – an integral part of the Movement – but to prevent violence and bloodshed. He wanted control of the campus until emotions cooled and the protest died down.
When asked where he would get black officers, father told Wallace and the legislators gathered in his office that the only black police officers in Alabama were on the Mobile police force – about 20 of them.
During the meeting, violence broke out at Alabama State when 10 to 15 Montgomery police officers entered the campus to arrest a SNCC staffer named Willie Ricks. They were pelted with rocks and bottles. The police fired shots in the air to escape the bombardment.
The meeting was interrupted when my father got an emergency phone call from campus police about the violence. He told Wallace and the legislators he had to go -- right now. Things were spiraling out of control on campus.
My father’s resolve electrified Wallace and the legislators. They did not want the responsibility for a massacre. Wallace took the habitual cigar out of his mouth and held it with an outstretched arm. He then told my father he was eager to help.
Wallace agreed that the state would reimburse Alabama State for the cost of hiring the Mobile police officers to maintain peace and order on campus. He also pressured Mobile’s police commissioner and police chief to allow the city’s black officers to work on Alabama State’s campus after these police commanders initially balked at the idea.
Because my father needed to get to Mobile immediately, Wallace ordered that the Governor’s airplane fly him there. When he arrived in Mobile, my father pleaded with the black police officers gathered at a city auditorium to accept this special duty assignment. Fourteen of them were present. The others were off duty and could not be reached on such short notice.
After my father’s passionate plea, each of the fourteen black police officers answered the call of duty and agreed to come to Alabama State – for however long it took to prevent the bloodshed and restore order on campus. They were led by Officer George Sullivan, Jr. All of them were flown to Montgomery on the Governor’s airplane.
Col. Lingo met the first group of Mobile police officers at Dannelly Field Airport in Montgomery. He offered Sullivan and his fellow officers the use of riot gear, including tear gas and billy clubs. Sullivan declined, saying, “Dr. Watkins brought us here to help students, not hurt them.”
After a two-week stay at Alabama State, the Mobile police calmed the atmosphere on campus and returned home. They had done what the State of Alabama could not do. And, what the University could not do alone. They helped to save lives and prevent bloodshed. Only God knows how many lives and how much blood.
These fourteen dedicated and caring police officers were commended by a Joint House and Senate Resolution of the 1965 all-white Alabama Legislature “for their responsible attitudes and actions and for their devotion to their public duty and their concern for public safety.” Each one of them also received the President’s Award at the May 1965 Commencement for the Alabama State University’s Mobile Center.
As for Gov. George Corley Wallace, Jr., his loss of control on March 7, 1965 caused “Bloody Sunday,” but his resolute leadership on April 23, 1965 prevented a likely massacre of black students, faculty and staff members on the campus of Alabama State University. If we are to blame Wallace for allowing Col. Lingo to cause “Bloody Sunday,” we must also credit Wallace (and my father) for securing and redeploying the Mobile police officers who stopped Lingo from producing a far more violent and bloodier confrontation on the campus of Alabama State University a mere six weeks later.
Donald V. Watkins
[Editor’s Note: This story is told in greater detail in “Fighting Hard: The Alabama State Experience,” authored by Levi Watkins, Harlo Press (1987)]
PHOTO: Former Governor George Corley Wallace, Jr.
PHOTO: Dr. Levi Watkins, Sr.