By: Jeff Frederick
Reviewed by: Ruth Beaumont Cook
The University of Alabama Press, 2007
In the preface to Stand Up for Alabama, Jeff Frederick declares George Wallace “the most important Alabama politician in the twentieth century….” Early in the first chapter, Frederick also reminds the reader that Wallace “had the power, charisma, and political savvy to prevent his home state from becoming the Alabama that the nation and world would come to scorn.” A major theme of this fascinating biography is that Wallace chose instead to fan the flames of that scorn.
The title of Frederick’s biography is ironic. Wallace used “Stand Up for Alabama” as his campaign slogan, yet Frederick portrays him as a governor who, throughout his career, appeared more interested in his effect on national politics than the details of administrating his state. Running for office, rather than being in office, was clearly Wallace’s chosen profession.
This 406 page biography draws from twenty-two personal interviews along with other sources. It cites frequent junctures where Wallace dropped a progress ball he was perfectly capable of carrying. One of those balls involved bringing quality jobs to Alabama. Frederick suggests Wallace was content to offer quick incentives for low-paying jobs while ignoring high-skill, high-wage prospects.
Frederick, who teaches history in North Carolina, gives Wallace good marks for keeping campaign promises like fighting utility rate increases and for working behind the scenes to find jobs or benefits for ordinary people who contacted him directly.
Using the label “curmudgeon,” Frederick writes that Wallace loved his family but was often indifferent to them—even refusing to gather around the tree on Christmas morning. It was, Wallace said, one of the few days he could sleep until noon.
The most poignant section of the book deals with Wallace’s relationship with his first wife Lurleen who, when Wallace could not run again, served as governor from January 1967 to the time of her death from cancer in May 1968. Like her husband, Lurleen could be touched by individual experiences of hardship, especially when she visited the Bryce and Partlow mental health facilities in Tuscaloosa. That experience led her to champion mental health during her brief administration. After her death, George Wallace honored her legacy by continuing to support this issue.
Frederick concludes that Wallace was a governor who spoke for many Americans, including Alabamians, who viewed federal government as intrusive. He was also a governor who, through several administrations, failed to move Alabama forward economically and socially at a pace equal with the rest of the South.
Ruth Beaumont Cook, who lives in Birmingham, is the author of Guests Behind the Barbed Wire and North Across the River.