Lurleen whipped nine men in primary
After Ryan de Graffenreid's plane crash and death in February of 1966, the governor's race was wide open.
De Graffenreid would have been governor in a cakewalk but it was now a new ballgame with less than 10 weeks until the May election. George Wallace mulled it over for a few weeks then the amazing story of his wife Lurleen Wallace running for governor came to fruition. George would be her No. 1 advisor.
The Wallace name was magic. George Wallace had captured control of the race issue and that was the issue in 1966.
He was known as the foremost segregationist in Alabama and one of the most pronounced in the nation. His inaugural speech in 1963 declaring segregation today, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever had endeared him to the white Alabama electorate. He was also one of the most masterful politicians ever born. His love of campaigning and ability to remember names was unmatched. Politics was his life and Lurleen saved his life because he could not have lived without politics.
Lurleen was a genuinely sweet lady. Her humble background as a dime store clerk in Northport endeared her to Alabamians, most of whom could relate to her.
She was gracious and sincere and people fell in love with her. She had been diagnosed with cancer two years prior to the 1966 election. It seemed to be in remission but her health was not excellent.
The campaigning was a challenge to her. She did not cherish the spotlight the way George did and Wallace's total devotion to politics had taken a toll on their marriage and quality of life. She had been mother and father to five children. She liked her quiet time.
However, when Lurleen agreed to run it seemed to grow on her. She got better day after day. She was a quick study. She grew in political skills on the stump.
As the crowds grew you could feel the momentum and surge of popularity that she and George were experiencing. She seemed to thrill to it.
Her landslide victory in May was astonishing. She set records of historic proportions for vote getting, some of which still stand 40 years later.
Most astoundingly she defeated nine male opponents without a runoff and it was quite a lineup of opponents. Left in the carnage was an illustrious field of proven political vote getters.
Lurleen received 400,000 votes. Alabama Attorney General Richmond Flowers finished second, having received the votes of black Alabamians who were voting for the first time.
Jasper Congressman Carl Elliott finished a distant third. He left a stellar career in Congress to make the race and spent all of his personal money and congressional retirement to finish a distant third. Morgan County state Sen. Bob Gilchrist finished fourth. He had tried unsuccessfully to put together the de Graffenreid organization. Dothan businessman Charles Woods ran fifth.
Two former governors, John Patterson and Big Jim Folsom, finished sixth and seventh. State Agricultural Commissioner A.W. Todd ran eighth. Mind you, this demure lady rode to the governor's office with her husband George Wallace by annihilating a field of nine men, which included two former governors, a sitting attorney general, a sitting agricultural commissioner, a prominent congressman, a state senator, and two successful businessmen.
Lurleen Wallace went on to trounce the most popular Republican in Alabama, Jim Martin, in November by a two-to-one margin. Martin was a first-time Republican Congressman from Gadsden who had been elected in 1964. He had all but beaten Lister Hill for a U.S. Senate seat in 1962. He was the strongest Republican in Alabama in 1966 but he was no match for the Wallaces.
He was a segregationist, but a poor man's segregationist will beat a rich man's segregationist every time. Lurleen Wallace was a very popular lady in 1966. The state fell in love with her.
A young, clean-cut Speaker of the House, Albert Brewer, won a resounding victory for lt. governor that year. He would be heard of far more prominently within two years as Lurleen's fight with cancer was not over.
She became sick again within one year after taking office and by May of 1968 she had succumbed to cancer. The state was immensely mournful.
Alabamians had grown to love the sweet lady who had been a dime store clerk in Tuscaloosa County. The funeral turnout was enormous. The entire state mourned for the first female governor of Alabama.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama's leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 60 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.