George Wallace: A Daring Attack, Devastating Threat to Life

After an unplanned hiatus, I am back to present a new crime. This blog post examines the shooting of politician George Wallace. Wallace gained fame, or perhaps infamy, from his posture as a staunch segregationist in the early 1960s. By 1972, he was campaigning for President of the United States when a would-be assassin shot him at a political rally.

George Wallace, Segregationist

George Wallace was born in 1919 in Clio, a tiny town in southeast Alabama. After receiving a law degree from the University of Alabama and serving in World War II, he began dabbling in politics. In 1946, he won election to the Alabama House of Representatives. At that time, public opinion considered him a moderate on racial issues.

George Corley Wallace, official portrait ca. 1970 (State of Alabama)
George Corley Wallace, official portrait ca. 1970 (State of Alabama)

Wallace ran for Alabama governor in 1858 but lost in the primary to John John M. Patterson. Patterson was Attorney General of Alabama and had the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan, while the NAACP endorsed the relatively unknown Wallace. Wallace lost the primary by over 34,000 votes. Afterward, he told an aide that he lost because Patterson “out-segregationed” him (the exact language is uncertain).

By 1962, Wallace had morphed into a hard-line segregationist. He ran for governor again and won handily. His inaugural address included the line, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

George Wallace Stands in the Schoolhouse Door

In 1963, Wallace made a vain attempt to prevent two African American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling in the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. On June 11, 1963, he stood in front of the university’s Foster Auditorium, symbolically blocking the students. President John F. Kennedy had the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division on standby, ready to enforce integration, and the students’ registration proceeded.

U.S. Deputy District Attorney Nicholas Katzenbach confronts Governor George Wallace "standing in the schoolhouse door" at the University of Alabama in 1963 (Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine)
U.S. Deputy District Attorney Nicholas Katzenbach confronts Governor George Wallace “standing in the schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama in 1963 (Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine)

A second attempt to keep four Black students from enrolling in four separate Huntsville elementary schools in September 1963 also failed.

George Wallace Runs for President

In early November 1963, Wallace announced in Dallas, Texas, that he planned to challenge President John F. Kennedy for the 1964 Democratic presidential nomination. Days later, and also in Dallas, Kennedy was assassinated, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson became President. Nevertheless, Wallace entered the 1964 primaries, garnering a sizeable percentage of the vote in several states.

In 1968, Wallace ran for President again, this time as the candidate of the newly-created American Independent Party. His 1968 platform strongly echoed what he espoused in 1964. In November, he won three states and 45 electoral votes (a faithless elector in North Carolina added one more electoral vote).

George Wallace announces his bid for the presidency in 1968 (Matthew McMullin)
George Wallace announces his bid for the presidency in 1968 (Matthew McMullin)

1972, George Wallace returned to the Democratic Party for a third Presidential campaign. By then, he had reinvented his political self once again. He announced that he no longer supported segregation and rebranded himself as more of a populist.

George Wallace Shot

By May of 1972, Wallace was receiving high ratings in national opinion polls. On May 15, he attended a campaign event at the Laurel Shopping Center in Laurel, Maryland. There, a man named Arthur Bremer shot him four times with a Charter Arms snub-nosed .38 caliber revolver.

Arthur Herman Bremer
Arthur Herman Bremer

Bremer was a 21-year-old neer-do-well who had tried earlier to assassinate President Richard Nixon as he campaigned for reelection. Failing to get close enough to Nixon to carry out his plan, he turned his attention to Wallace instead.

On May 13, Bremer stalked Wallace to a rally in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Photographs of the rally show he had a clear opportunity to shoot but hesitated for fear of injuring some nearby teenagers.

The candidate speaks at a rally at the Laural Shopping Center moments before being shot by Arthur Bremer (Mabel Hobart)
The candidate speaks at a rally at the Laural Shopping Center moments before being shot by Arthur Bremer (Mabel Hobart)

Bremer followed the candidate to a shopping center rally in Wheaton, Maryland, two days later. However, the audience in Wheaton was predominantly hostile to Wallace, so he skipped shaking hands with the crowd.

The crowd was more friendly at the next rally in Laurel, Maryland. After finishing his speech, Wallace shook hands with some of the people present against the advice of his Secret Service guards. Bremer pushed his way forward, pointed his gun at Wallace’s abdomen, and fired five times, emptying the revolver. Television news cameras captured the shooting.

Bremer hit Wallace four times, causing severe abdominal injuries. One bullet lodged in Wallace’s spinal cord, while others struck him in the chest and abdomen. Three people nearby were also wounded, two seriously.

George Wallace lies wounded on the ground after being shot four times
George Wallace lies wounded on the ground after being shot four times

Bremer’s diary, published after his arrest, showed he wanted fame and notoriety and that his motives were not political.

Epilogue

George Wallace spent several weeks recovering from his wounds but was paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. With the assassination attempt, his run for president in 1972 was effectively over. He ran poorly in a fourth presidential campaign in 1976, mainly because of voter concern over his health.

Wallace served his final term as Alabama governor between 1983 and 1987. By this time, he had come full circle, apologizing to the African American community for his earlier segregationist stance. In this term, he appointed more Blacks to state positions, including two cabinet members, than any previous Alabama governor.

Arthur Bremer stood trial beginning on July 31, 1972. On August 4, the jury of six men and six women took only 95 minutes to reject his insanity plea and convicted him of attempted murder. An appeals court reduced his 63-year sentence to 53 years on September 28, 1972.

Bremer was released on November 9, 2007, after serving 35 years. He remains on supervised release until 2025.

You can read more about George Wallace in his autobiography, George Wallace: From Segregation to Salvation.

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