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  • Donald V. Watkins

The Other Side of George C. Wallace

Updated: Jun 13, 2019

By Donald V. Watkins

©Copyrighted and Published on March 28, 2019


People have firmly held opinions about former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace. So do I.


On March 26, 2019, I told the story of how George Wallace and my father (Dr. Levi Watkins, Sr.) worked together in April of 1965 to prevent the potential massacre of students, faculty, and staff members on the campus of Alabama State University. That story added more definition to who Wallace was as a human being and political leader.


There are other stories that shed a bright light on George Wallace’s true character. I will share a couple of them here.


Public School Desegregation in Montgomery


When the Montgomery public schools were first desegregated in 1964, they started with a handful of black students who integrated the first, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. At the time, Wallace’s daughter, Peggy Sue, was attending Lanier High School, which was located a few blocks from the Governor’s Mansion.


Arlam Carr, Jr. was a named plaintiff in the Montgomery public school desegregation case, along with his parents. His father, Arlam Carr, Sr., and mother, Johnnie Carr, were longtime civil rights advocates in Montgomery. They were the only black parents in Montgomery who were willing to put their names on the lawsuit as plaintiffs. Arlam, who was 13-years-old when the suit was filed, was their only child.


Arlam attended the Alabama State University Laboratory School while his lawsuit was pending. Arlam's family caught pure hell from many whites in Montgomery for filing the case. Most people in the black community feared they would be killed for filing the desegregation lawsuit.


When U.S. District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. ruled in Arlam’s favor, he was in the 9th grade at the Laboratory School. The first three black students desegregated Lanier High School in September of 1964. Lanier was the pride and joy of white Montgomery. Arlam had to wait a year before he could attend Lanier as a 10th grade student.


Gov. Wallace was aware that Arlam was an extremely controversial figure in Montgomery's white community. He was determined that nothing bad would happened to Arlam when he entered Lanier in September of 1965.


Wallace made sure that Arlam was placed in the same class with Peggy Sue because she had state trooper protection at all times. The troopers who protected Peggy Sue were instructed to protect Arlam, as well.


Arlam gave those of us who remained at the Laboratory School daily reports of his treatment at Lanier. He was one brave teenager. Arlam graduated from Lanier in 1968. He attended college at the University of Texas at El Paso. Arlam died from throat cancer in 2013 at the age of 62.


I have always found it fascinating that Wallace, who defiantly stood in the "school house door" at The University of Alabama in 1963 to block the admission of James Hood and Vivian Malone as students, would privately make sure in 1965 that Arlam Carr, Jr. had the same trooper protection as his daughter.


Furthermore, Wallace sent his son George to Lanier while the high school was taking in more black students. George graduated from Lanier in 1970.


Looking back at it today, George Wallace made a conscious decision to keep his children in the Montgomery public school system during the toughest times in the school desegregation era. He did not use Peggy Sue or George to lead a political movement aimed at steering white students toward the many all-white private “Christian” academies that sprang up in the South during the 1960s.


Why?


The Pardon for Scottsboro Boy Clarence Norris


Clarence Norris was one of nine "Scottsboro Boys" who were arrested in 1931 in Paint Rock, Alabama and falsely accused of raping two white women. Norris was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in Alabama's electric chair three times. The U.S. Supreme Court saved his life each time.


Norris decided to pursue his quest for a pardon in 1972. He was living as a fugitive under an alias in New York. I was still in law school at the time.


In 1974, the NAACP asked me to represent Norris in his quest for a pardon. I had studied the Scottsboro Boys' landmark cases in law school and my parents told us about the case when I was a child, but I never thought one of the Scottsboro Boys was still alive.


My early attempts to get a pardon for Norris were met with massive resistance from the Alabama Pardons and Paroles Board, and the case quickly reached an impasse. I then approached Attorney Milton C. Davis, a friend of mine from Tuskegee who worked as an Assistant Attorney General in Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley's office. I asked Milton for his help. He quickly arranged a meeting between Baxley and me. Milton also convinced Baxley to assign him to research the evidence and court records in the case for the Attorney General's office.


To qualify for his pardon, Clarence Norris had to prove his innocence by clear and convincing evidence. He also had to get the Pardons and Parole Board and Governor George Wallace to unanimously agree to his pardon.


After reviewing the evidence in the case that had been developed by Davis and me, Bill Baxley wrote a detailed letter to the three-member Pardons and Parole Board affirming Norris' innocence of the rape charges and urging the Board to pardon him. Baxley eventually convinced board members William R. Robinson and Sara Cousins Sellers of Norris' innocence. However, Baxley was unable to convince Chairman Norman F. Ussery, who pointed out that Norris was a fugitive and indicated the board would not consider a pardon until Norris was returned to the Alabama prison system.


The pardon effort came to a complete standstill because Norris, whose experience in Alabama was a living hell, was not inclined to return to Alabama for the purpose of re-entering the state's penal system. He would, however, return to secure his pardon.


On October 22, 1976, Board members Robinson and Sellers agreed to declare that Norris was no longer a fugitive from justice. They quietly reinstated his parole, without supervision. They also voted to withdraw the September 30, 1946 warrant for Norris’ arrest.


On October 25, 1976, Sara Sellers issued her own "Statement of Evidence, Reasons and Opinion" in which she found that “Clarence Norris is not guilty of this [rape] offense.” Robinson agreed with Sellers' findings and opinion.


Chairman Norman Ussery, however, still would not bend. Bill Baxley then talked to Gov. Wallace, who became really interested in the pardon effort and eventually became convinced of Norris' innocence, as well. Wallace, who had appointed and reappointed Ussery to the board, privately discussed the pardon with Ussery and persuaded him to change his mind. Wallace wanted Norris pardoned and he would not take “no” for an answer.


On November 26, 1976, all three Pardons and Parole Board members signed a certification for the issuance of a full and unconditional pardon for Clarence Norris based upon his innocence of the 1931 rape charges. Wallace proudly signed the certification, as well.


On November 29, 1976, Norris returned to Montgomery to receive his pardon and a hero's welcome. I met him on the tarmac of the airport. When Norris exited the airplane, we just stared at each other until he reached me in the sea of reporters and supporters from around the world. Then, we hugged and cried. Both of us realized the magnitude of the moment -- the State of Alabama had finally and officially declared that the Scottsboro Boys were innocent of the 1931 rape charges.


We proceeded from the airport to the Pardons and Parole Board's meeting room. With tears streaming down his face, Clarence Norris proudly accepted his pardon on behalf of himself and the other eight Scottsboro Boys (all of whom were dead). Norris' 45-year legal battle with the State of Alabama was finally over, and his name had been cleared.


Without Gov. Wallace’s direct intervention and willingness to strong-arm Board Chairman Norman Ussery, Clarence Norris would not have received his 1976 pardon.


Epilogue


These stories demonstrate that George C. Wallace was far more complicated than the caricature of the man who was portrayed in the national media as a “racist.” The Alabama media was so addicted to its participating role in the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program during the 1950s, 60s and 70s that they had no interest in defining Wallace’s true character.

Gov. Wallace must be judged by the sum total of his experiences as a man and politician. Throughout his career as Alabama’s most famous governor, Wallace’s private and public actions definitely had a positive and lasting impact on the quality of life for all Alabamians.


PHOTO: Alabama Governor George C. Wallace defiantly stood in the "school house door" at The University of Alabama in 1963 to block the admission of two black students. Two years later, another side of Wallace emerged at Lanier High School in Montgomery. This is the side I know personally and will remember forever.

PHOTO: Thirteen-year-old Arlam Carr, Jr.'s federal court lawsuit desegregated Montgomery's public schools in 1964. As a result of his lawsuit, Arlam was the target of an endless barrage of death threats. When Arlam arrived at Lanier High School in 1965, Gov. George C. Wallace arranged for him to be placed in the same class with his daughter, Peggy Sue. Wallace privately instructed the state troopers who guarded his daughter to protect Arlam, as well.


© 2020 by Donald V. Watkins, P.C.