The year 1963 was an historic and turbulent year for Alabama. The race issue was the prevalent and commanding issue in southern politics. White southerners were determined to hold onto segregation and Jim Crow laws as was the entire South.
Black southerners were prohibited from voting by these laws and practices. Therefore, every governor’s race in the Deep South was won by whichever candidate could be the most pro-segregationist, and yes, most rhetorical and vociferous towards blacks and integration. The king of the racist anti-integration governors became our own George C. Wallace, although Georgia’s Lester Maddox and Mississippi’s Ross Barrett ran him a close second.
George Wallace was obsessed with being the Governor of Alabama. He thought he would be elected in his first bid in 1958. He lost that race to John Patterson primarily because Patterson was perceived as being the most pronounced racist and segregationist. Wallace took the defeat hard. He actually went into a depression mode for about a week. He hardly got out of his bed in a Montgomery hotel room. His closest friends and allies consoled him and finally coaxed him out of bed and assured him that he had just run his “Get Acquainted Race,” an historic pattern whereby the man who ran second would run for governor again in four years later and win because the sitting governor could not run again. The Alabama Constitution prohibited reelection, so one four year term and you were out.
After a week, Wallace got out of bed, shaved, showered, called his comrades together and declared, “Boys, I am going to be elected governor in 1962, come hell or high water. I got out-segged and I ain’t going to be out-segged again.” He grabbed hold of the race issue, and he did not let go. He worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week for four years, and he rode the race issue like a rented mule and won the 1962 governor’s race.
He became Governor in January of 1963 and made his famous inaugural speech spouting, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” He and every legislator passed laws and resolutions espousing segregation.
Wallace was sincere in his racist rhetoric. He believed in segregation, but deep down he was more of a progressive than a racist. Wallace was born and raised from humble roots in rural Barbour County. He saw what FDR’s New Deal Democratic Progressive Plan had done for Alabama. Wallace had put together enough money to journey to Tuscaloosa with a cardboard suitcase and get into the University of Alabama as a boy. At that time, most promising students could not afford to go to college. Wallace was determined to provide an opportunity for Alabama students to be able to stay home and get a college education.
In the midst of all the racist discord in 1963, Wallace and the legislature created the Alabama Junior College and Trade School System. It is his greatest legacy. The system was created 60 years ago in 1963. This is the systems “Diamond Jubilee.” The system has long transitioned from the junior college system for providing an easier way to get the first two years of college before transferring to a four year college.
Today, 60 years later, the Alabama Community College System is the most important and significant segment of higher education in Alabama. The Community College System is made up of Alabama students and they are prepared to take Alabama’s highest paying and most needed jobs. The Alabama Community College System is the new capstone of higher education in Alabama.
The Alabama Community College System is made up of 24 colleges and more than 130 locations. They are the primary vehicle for providing workers and managers for Alabama businesses large and small.
There are 155,000 students attending Alabama Community Colleges. Enrollment has been up almost 10 percent in the last two years. Ninety-six percent of the systems students live in Alabama and 72 percent of these students stay in Alabama after completing their studies. These students and alumni add an amazing $6.6 billion to Alabama economy each year. Nearly 100,000 jobs in Alabama are generated or supported by Alabama’s Community Colleges, their students and alumni. This accounts for one of every 27 jobs in our state.
Wallace could never have dreamed of what he was doing for Alabama’s future 60 years ago.
See you next week.