Plane crash put Lurleen on '66 ballot

Published 7:33 pm Wednesday, September 28, 2005

By Staff
If race was a major issue in 1958, being the racist candidate in 1962 was the only way to be elected governor. With this issue in hand and Wallace's love for campaigning and remembering names, he would have beaten anybody that year.
Big Jim was really no match for Wallace because Big Jim had always been soft on the race issue. He was a true progressive liberal who would not succumb to racial demagoging, but Big Jim had succumbed to alcohol. Leading up to the governor's race in 1962 while Wallace had been campaigning 12-16 hours a day, seven days a week for four years, Big Jim sat home.
Wallace would have won even if Big Jim had not embarrassed himself on live TV the night before the election. 
A secondary story developed during the 1962 campaign. A star was born.
Ryan de Graffenreid was a smart, handsome, articulate Tuscaloosa state senator and lawyer. His family had been a prominent Tuscaloosa political family for generations but young Ryan de Graffenreid truly had the makings of an Alabama governor. He got into the 1962 governor's race and the pundits wrote him off as an also-ran.
They said it was a Folsom versus Wallace race. De Graffenreid had charisma and captivated all the silk stocking voters who would be Republicans today, but there was no Alabama Republican Party or primary at that time.
He was quietly moving up in popularity leading up to the May Democratic Primary and he, Wallace, and Folsom each had 30 minute shows on TV the night before the election.
Wallace came on first and did all right but he was used to the stump and country campaigning so the new medium of TV felt uncomfortable to him. But he did not hurt himself. Ryan de Graffenreid came on next and he was a sensation. He took to the camera like a duck to water.
He was the new kind of candidate. He had John Kennedy-like appeal and he mastered the new medium of TV. He helped himself a lot. Alabamians saw a candidate that they liked. Then Big Jim came on, obviously inebriated, and sunk himself, although it was a very colorful show.
Wallace won, but the surprise of the election was Big Jim finished third. Ryan de Graffenreid came in second and would face Wallace in the runoff. Wallace was elected governor, but de Graffenreid had run a brilliant get acquainted race and a star had been born. 
The 1966 governor's race had two stories: the Ryan de Graffenreid story and the Lurleen Wallace story.
Ryan de Graffenreid had become the man to beat in 1966. He took a page from the George Wallace playbook and copied Wallace's work habits from four years earlier. He worked the state nonstop from one end to the other. He campaigned 12 - 16 hours a day, seven days a week for four years. He worked as hard as Wallace had but was even more organized.
Old timers say he had a precinct and box captain lined up in every box and hamlet in Alabama. It was an unbelievable organization for that era.
During the summer of 1965 one of the most titanic sessions in state senate occurred. Wallace called a special session to get the Legislature to change the Constitution and do away with the one term limit to allow him to succeed himself.
It was called the Succession Session. It passed the House easily, but you had some strong-willed state senators who withstood the most powerful pressure ever put on legislators. They refused to buckle in to the brazen and strong armed Wallace power play.
Wallace could not get the majority he needed in the Senate. Many of those Senators were committed to de Graffenreid. They had served with him and were loyal to him. It cost many of them their political careers, because Wallace went after them with a vengeance.
He was at the height of his popularity. The race issue was at its peak and at a fever pitch and Wallace owned the race issue.
With Wallace out of the race, de Graffenreid appeared invincible. He campaigned tirelessly even though he had only token opposition.
It was a cold windy night in February of 1966. He was to make a speech up around Sand Mountain. He had a campaign plane and he and his pilot were advised not to try to make the flight to the event.
De Graffenreid refused to stop. He boarded his plane at Ft. Payne and within minutes after takeoff he and his pilot crashed into a mountain and were killed instantly. De Graffenreid would have been governor. The state was in shock.
The governor's race was wide open with less than three months before the primary, which was tantamount to the election.
The idea of George Wallace running his wife, Lurleen, in his place had been tossed out by a few of his cronies as a joke. They never thought of it while de Graffenreid was alive and running.
Lurleen would not have run if de Graffenreid had not tragically died, but a real vacuum existed after that fateful February night and the Wallace name was magic.
After a few weeks the idea grew with Wallace. He made calls to every county in the state and began to realize that dog might hunt.  
We will continue next week with the rest of the story of the 1966 governor's race, the Lurleen Wallace story.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers served 16 years in the Alabama legislature. He may be reached at .

Email newsletter signup