By State Auditor Jim Zeigler
Today, Monday, January 16, 2017, is the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of Lurleen Wallace as Alabama’s only female Governor. January 16, 1967 was and remains a historic milestone for our state. I was there, marching with the Sylacauga High School “Half-Million-Dollar Band.” Freezing cold.
Today, sadly, the official portrait of Gov. Lurleen Wallace remains – illegally – out of the Capitol Rotunda, where it historically and legally hung until January 2015.
The mistreatment of the Lurleen Wallace portrait by the Bentley administration is a shameful example of political correctness and historical revision.
It was two years ago, January 15, 2015, five days before I would take office as State Auditor. Without notice, officials of the Bentley administration hurriedly removed the two Wallace portraits from the Capitol Rotunda. In their place, they erected the portrait of incumbent Governor Robert Bentley.
It was a premature erection. Traditionally, the portraits of governors are erected in the Capitol Rotunda after the Governor leaves office. But at the insistence of senior policy adviser Rebekah Mason, Gov. Bentley jumped the gun. He had his own official portrait painted and erected just before his second term began.
The saga of the removal of the Wallace portraits and my four requests to get them returned reads like a soap opera. Sadly, it is all true – a documentary of the dysfunctional Bentley administration.
On my first working day as State Auditor, I was notified by my staff that the Bentley administration had removed the Wallace portraits. I quickly walked the halls of the Capitol and, sure enough, the new Bentley portrait was in the Rotunda. The Wallace portraits had been put on a wheelbarrow, ridden down the elevator one floor, taken left down the hallway just far enough to be off the guided tours, and relegated to a wall by the Secretary of State’s office. Neither of the Wallace Governors have any historical connection to the Secretary of State’s office.
I immediately began researching the law about the placement of the Wallace portraits. I found a joint resolution of the 1983 legislature which mandated that the Wallace portraits be displayed in the Rotunda in perpetuity. Clear as crystal.
The action of the Bentley administration in removing the Wallace portraits from the Rotunda was illegal, in violation of the letter of the law and the clear legislative intent.
I drew up a request to the Director of Historic Sites, who had actually removed the Wallace portraits. I included a copy of the joint resolution of the legislature mandating that the portraits remain forever in the rotunda. He did not care and would not return the Wallace portraits.
I sent him a second request, this time giving him new information that would have made a difference to any sensible person. I told him that the oldest of the four Wallace children, whose mother and father had both been Governor, was hospitalized and in terminal condition. Bobbie Jo Wallace Parsons was not expected to live. This was a terrible time to remove her parents’ official portraits from their legal and historical place of honor. He again would not restore the Wallace portraits. Heartless.
He was then fired as Director of Historic Sites.
Bobbie Jo Wallace Parsons died.
I drew up a third request, this time to the Director of the Alabama Historical Commission, Frank White, asking that he return the portraits to their legal and historical place. He met with me, listened, and was as courteous and professional as could be. But he did not return the Wallace portraits to the Rotunda.
Frank White was then fired as Director of the Alabama Historical Commission.
I then sent a fourth request to return the Wallace portraits to the Historical Commission itself. I met with their leadership and they declined to return the portraits. They said it would cost money. An odd attempt to justify an illegal action. I offered to raise up the money with a GoFundMe account. I figured it would take me about two days. They thought that was a joke.
One of my regrets in my two years as State Auditor is that the Bentley administration has declined my four requests — and requests by many of you — to restore the Wallace portraits to their lawful place.
It will likely take a new governor elected in 2018 to right this wrong and stop this historical revision.
Jim Zeigler serves as State Auditor of Alabama, a post he has held since January 2015.