“At consequential moments in history, they present a choice,” Biden said in his speech from Atlanta earlier this week. “Do you want to be the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
Everyone knows who the good guys are.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the leader with the dream of equality who symbolizes the civil rights era. He was cut down by an assassin in 1968. We celebrate his birthday with a federal holiday Monday. There’s a monument with his likeness on the National Mall in Washington.
John Lewis was the civil rights activist who was beat down on a bridge in Selma, Alabama, and who served in Congress and was hailed across the political spectrum after he died in 2020.
Abraham Lincoln was the President who restored the union “with malice toward none” and who was also cut down by an assassin. His monument is nearby King’s on the Mall.
But those other names, important in history and once known across the land, are not as well known today.
Who are George Wallace, Bull Connor and Jefferson Davis?
Wallace, whom Biden painted as a foil to King, was a segregationist and former longtime governor of Alabama. A Southern Democrat, he ran for president in 1968 under the American Independent Party and won five Southern states. He’s the last non-major party candidate to win electoral votes.
Connor, whom Biden described as a foil to Lewis, was born Theophilus Eugene Connor. He was the former public safety commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama, who let the Ku Klux Klan beat up civil rights activists, whose police dogs intimidated protesters and who fought integration with every fiber of his being.
“Unquestionably, Birmingham was the toughest segregation town in the South, from the Negroes’ viewpoint. And it was symbolized by Public Safety Commissioner Eugene (“Bull”) Connor, who had cowed Negroes for 23 years with hoarse threats and club-swinging cops. It was against Connor’s Birmingham that King began secretly recruiting volunteers. …”
It’s easy to see why Biden picked these three characters as the villains in his speech. Republicans bristled at being compared to Wallace, Connor and Davis.
“I think everybody listening to that speech who’s speaking on the level, as my mother would say, would note that he was not comparing them as humans, he was comparing the choice to those figures in history and where they’re going to position themselves as they determine whether they’re going to support the fundamental right to vote or not,” said press secretary Jen Psaki.
“Bull Connor may be gone,” Obama said. “But today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans. George Wallace may be gone. But we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.”
The history is also not as simple as Biden suggested, at least in the case of Wallace.
When first inaugurated as governor in 1963, Wallace promised, disgustingly, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He venerated the Confederacy and worked to disrupt the civil rights movement, which Democrats in Washington were behind. Wallace’s appeal extended outside the South, however, even if he represented an old version of a changing party.
He still held power in the party in 1976, although he was then using a wheelchair. So much power that when he finally endorsed future President Jimmy Carter, Carter flew to Montgomery, Alabama, to personally thank him for getting out of the race.
“George Wallace should be remembered for his capacity to change,” Lewis wrote. “And we are better as a nation because of our capacity to forgive and to acknowledge that our political leaders are human and largely a reflection of the social currents in the river of history.”