We should never take for granted the power of a person’s spoken words. At times, they may appear idle and harmless, but those words’ subtle and indirect messages can ultimately prove deadly. A clever person, when they speak, understands the hearts and minds of his listeners. A clever and insensitive person will take that understanding and use it for malice and ill will.
If I mention the name George Wallace, many people may immediately think of the comedian. Others would remember the former governor of Alabama who Martin Luther King Jr. once called the “most dangerous racist in America.” Gov. Wallace was dangerous because of his spoken words. While many remember him as a segregationist, most people never knew that the NAACP once endorsed Wallace.
In 1958, during his first run for governor of Alabama, Wallace was a moderate Democrat who rejected the idea of making race an issue while declining a formal endorsement from the Ku Klux Klan. By welcoming Klan support, his opponent overwhelmingly defeated Wallace in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. But Wallace was a shrewd politician who adjusted well and developed a deep insight into the mindset of the Southern white working class. He understood the reasons behind their hate, their anger and their disenchantment. He understood their distrust of the federal government while encouraging the need to stand up against it.
Driven by political ambition and the thirst for power, he redefined himself as a segregationist with a strong, authoritative persona. Four years later, he ran again for governor, this time as a vocal champion for segregation and states’ rights. He won by a landslide.
In his inauguration address, written by leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, Wallace followed the cultural influence of his base supporters by vowing “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
In four years, George Wallace transformed from a moderate gubernatorial candidate supported by the NAACP into an “angry man’s candidate” who played upon the fears, grievances and hatred of white Southerners.
It comes down to gaining and maintaining political power. Through his words, Wallace created an “enemy” to be targeted to gain power. Wallace knew from the beginning that it was a matter of time before segregation would eventually end. He also knew which buttons to press with the public to play upon people’s emotions to his advantage deliberately. With his pro-segregation rhetoric, use of racial and social code words, and catering to white working-class prejudices, he knowingly misled his supporters because it was the quickest way to power. Through his words, Wallace perpetuated a deep-seated hatred toward the “enemy,” which resulted in violence.
He created an environment that inspired people to put violent action behind their personal feelings of resentment and rage. Many of his speeches were rallying cries which indirectly motivated acts of domestic terror, harassment and even murder. Later in the same year of his infamous “segregation now” speech, Wallace, in a newspaper interview, said he believed Alabama needed a “few first-class funerals” to stop racial integration. One week later, four young girls were killed, and over 20 others were injured in a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham. Martin Luther King Jr. later informed Wallace that “the blood of four little children … is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.” Wallace knew what he was doing while taking advantage of his voters’ vulnerabilities, ignorance, and lack of knowledge of public issues and facts. He was a master of the “us against them” strategy. He constantly painted a picture where those who were pro-segregation were the victims being abused by the “enemy,” which consisted of the federal government, along with those who morally sought to end segregation.
Fast forward to the year 2022. When we hear the details surrounding the violent assault on the life of Paul Pelosi, how can we not forget that his wife, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has been vilified as a political “enemy” for years? As the face of progressive policies, Nancy Pelosi has been the target of an avalanche of Republican campaign ads leading up to the midterm elections. According to AdImpact, which tracks television and digital ad spending, Republicans have spent nearly $40 million on ads that mention her by name since the Labor Day holiday.
How can we not acknowledge the consistent patterns from the past to the present? The attack on Pelosi comes during a recent rise in the number of threats aimed at federal officials and perceived enemies of former President Donald Trump. It should not have been taken likely when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy joked that if he becomes the next speaker of the House, it will be hard not to hit Pelosi with the speaker’s gavel. Where McCarthy would use the speaker’s gavel, Paul Pelosi’s accused attacker used an actual hammer. Idle words can be deadly. Fortunately, no harm came to the House speaker. And thankfully, Paul Pelosi, who underwent surgery to repair a skull fracture, is expected to make a full recovery.
Marshall is the founder of the faith-based organization TRB: The Reconciled Body and author of the book “God Bless Our Divided America.”