Wallace is remembered for his Southern neo-dixiecrat and pro-segregation "Jim Crow" positions during the mid-20th century period of the Civil Rights Movement, declaring in his 1963 Inaugural Address that he stood for "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," and standing in front of the entrance of the University of Alabama in an attempt to stop the enrollment of black students. He eventually renounced segregationism but remained a social conservative. Wallace survived an assassination attempt in Laurel, Maryland in 1972, perpetrated by Arthur Bremer, but remained wheelchair-bound until his death in 1998.
Wallace, the first of four children, was born in Clio in Barbour County in southeastern Alabama, to George Corley Wallace Sr. and his wife, Mozelle (Smith). He was the third of five generations to bear the name "George Wallace". Since his parents disliked the designation "Junior", he was called "George C." to distinguish him from his father, George, and his grandfather, a physician. Wallace's father left college to pursue a life of farming when food prices were high during World War I; when he died in 1937, his wife had to sell their farmland to pay existing mortgages. Like his parents, George Wallace was a Methodist.
From age ten, Wallace was fascinated with politics. In 1935, he won a contest to serve as a page in the Alabama Senate and confidently predicted that he would one day be governor. Wallace became a regionally successful boxer in high school, then went directly to law school in 1937 at the University of Alabama School of Law in Tuscaloosa. He was a member of the Delta Chi fraternity. It was at the University of Alabama that he crossed paths with Frank M. Johnson Jr., who was a much more liberal politician in relation to social issues and issues of race. Wallace also knew George Sparks, who became a conservative governor. These men had an effect on his personal politics reflecting ideologies of both leaders later during his time in office.
After receiving an LL.B. degree in 1942, he entered pilot cadet training in the United States Army Air Corps. He failed to complete the course, however, and as a staff sergeant flew B-29 combat missions over Japan in 1945. He served with the XX Bomber Command under General Curtis LeMay, who would be his running mate in the 1968 presidential race. Wallace nearly died of spinal meningitis while serving in the Army, but prompt medical attention with sulfa drugs saved his life. Left with partial hearing loss and permanent nerve damage, Wallace was medically discharged early with a disability pension.
In 1938, at age 19, Wallace contributed to his grandfather's successful campaign for probate judge. Late in 1945, he was appointed as one of the assistant attorneys general of Alabama, and in May 1946, he won his first election as a member to the Alabama House of Representatives. At the time, he was considered a moderate on racial issues. As a delegate to the 1948 Democratic National Convention, he did not join the Dixiecrat walkout at the convention, despite his opposition to U.S. President Harry S. Truman's proposed civil rights program. Wallace considered it an infringement on states' rights. The Dixiecrats carried Alabama in the 1948 general election, having rallied behind Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. In his 1963 inaugural speech as governor, Wallace excused his failure to walk out of the 1948 convention on political grounds.
In 1952, he became the Circuit Judge of the Third Judicial Circuit in Alabama. Here he became known as "the fighting little judge," a nod to his past boxing association. He gained a reputation for fairness regardless of the race of the plaintiff. It was common practice at the time for judges in the area to refer to black lawyers by their first names, while their white colleagues were addressed formally as "Mister"; Black lawyer J. L. Chestnut later said that "Judge George Wallace was the most liberal judge that I had ever practiced law in front of. He was the first judge in Alabama to call me 'Mister' in a courtroom."
On the other hand, Wallace issued injunctions to prevent the removal of segregation signs in rail terminals, becoming the first Southern judge to do so. Similarly, during efforts by civil rights organizations to expand voter registration of blacks, Wallace blocked federal efforts to review Barbour County voting lists. He was cited for criminal contempt of court in 1959.
As judge, Wallace granted probation to some blacks, which may have cost him the 1958 gubernatorial election.
In 1958, Wallace ran in the Democratic primary for governor. Since the 1901 constitution's effective disfranchisement of the state's blacks, and most poor whites as well, the Democratic Party had been virtually the only party in Alabama. For all intents and purposes, the Democratic primary was the real contest at the state level. This was a political crossroads for Wallace. State Representative George C. Hawkins of Gadsden ran, but Wallace's main opponent was state attorney general John Malcolm Patterson, who ran with the support of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization Wallace had spoken against. Wallace was endorsed by the NAACP. Wallace lost the nomination by over 34,400 votes.
After the election, aide Seymore Trammell recalled Wallace saying, "Seymore, you know why I lost that governor's race? ... I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I'll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again."
In the wake of his defeat, Wallace adopted a hard-line segregationist stance and used this stand to court the white vote in the next gubernatorial election in 1962. When a supporter asked why he started using racist messages, Wallace replied, "You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor."
In the 1962 Democratic primary, Wallace finished first, ahead of State Senator Ryan DeGraffenried Sr., and taking 35 percent of the vote. In the runoff, Wallace won the nomination with 55 percent of the vote. As no Republican filed to run, this all but assured Wallace of becoming the next governor. He won a crushing victory in the November general election, taking 96 percent of the vote. As noted above, Democratic dominance had been achieved by disenfranchising most blacks and many poor whites in the state for decades, which lasted until years after federal civil rights legislation was passed in 1964 and 1965.
Wallace took the oath of office on January 14, 1963, standing on the gold star marking the spot where, nearly 102 years earlier, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as provisional president of the Confederate States of America. In his inaugural speech, Wallace said:
This sentence was written by Wallace's new speechwriter, Asa Earl Carter.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy's administration ordered the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division from Ft. Benning, Georgia to be prepared to enforce the racial integration of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. In a vain attempt to halt the enrollment of black students Vivian Malone and James Hood, Governor Wallace stood in front of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963. This became known as the "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door".
In September 1963, Wallace attempted to stop four black students from enrolling in four separate elementary schools in Huntsville. After intervention by a federal court in Birmingham, the four children were allowed to enter on September 9, becoming the first to integrate a primary or secondary school in Alabama.
Wallace desperately wanted to preserve segregation. In his own words: "The President (John F. Kennedy) wants us to surrender this state to Martin Luther King and his group of pro-communists who have instituted these demonstrations."
Wallace predicted the office holding supporters of a civil rights bill would politically "bite the dust" by 1966 and 1968 during a Milwaukee, Wisconsin September 17, 1964 speech.
The Encyclopædia Britannica characterized him not so much as a segregationist but more as a "populist" who pandered to the white majority of Alabama voters. It notes that his failed attempt at presidential politics created lessons that later influenced the populist candidacies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Jack Newfield wrote in 1971 that Wallace "recently has been sounding like William Jennings Bryan as he attacked concentrated wealth in his speeches".
The principal achievement of Wallace's first term was an innovation in Alabama industrial development that several other states later copied: he was the first Southern governor to travel to corporate headquarters in northern states to offer tax abatements and other incentives to companies willing to locate plants in Alabama.
He also initiated a junior college system that has now spread throughout the state, preparing many students to complete four-year degrees at Auburn University, UAB, or the University of Alabama. Lurleen B. Wallace Community College in Andalusia is named for Wallace's first wife, Lurleen Burns Wallace.
The University of South Alabama, a new state university in Mobile, was chartered in 1963 during Wallace's first year in office as governor.
On November 15–20, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, Wallace announced his intention to oppose the incumbent President, John F. Kennedy, for the 1964 Democratic presidential nomination. Days later in Dallas, Kennedy was assassinated, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded him as president.
Building upon his notoriety after the University of Alabama controversy, Wallace entered the Democratic primaries in 1964 on the advice of a public relations expert from Wisconsin. Wallace campaigned strongly by expressing his opposition to integration and a tough approach on crime. In Democratic primaries in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland, Wallace garnered at least a third of the vote running against three Johnson-designated surrogates.
Wallace was known for stirring crowds with his oratory. The Huntsville Times interviewed Bill Jones, Wallace's first press secretary, who recounted "a particularly fiery speech in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1964 that scared even Wallace, [where he] angrily shouted to a crowd of 1,000 people that 'little pinkos' were 'running around outside' protesting his visit, and continued, after thunderous applause, saying, 'When you and I start marching and demonstrating and carrying signs, we will close every highway in the country.' The audience leaped to its feet and headed for the exit," Jones said, "It shook Wallace. He quickly moved to calm them down."
At graduation exercises in the spring of 1964 at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, Wallace received an honorary doctorate. At the commencement, Bob Jones Jr., read the following citation as a tribute to Wallace:
In 1964, Alabama Republicans stood to benefit from the unintended consequences of two developments: (1) Governor Wallace vacating the race for the Democratic presidential nomination against President Johnson, and (2) the designation of unpledged Democratic electors in Alabama, in effect removing President Johnson from the general election ballot. Prior to the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, Wallace and his aides Bill Jones and Seymore Trammell met in the Jefferson Davis Hotel in Montgomery with Alabama Republican leader James D. Martin, who had narrowly lost the U.S. Senate election in 1962 to J. Lister Hill. Wallace and his aides sought to determine if Barry M. Goldwater, the forthcoming Republican presidential nominee who as a senator from Arizona had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on libertarian and constitutional grounds, would advocate repeal of the law, particularly the public accommodations and equal employment sections. Bill Jones indicated that Wallace agreed with Goldwater's anti-communist stance but opposed the Republican's proposal to make Social Security a voluntary program. Jones stressed that Wallace had sacrificed his own presidential aspirations that year to allow a direct Republican challenge to President Johnson. It was later disclosed that Wallace proposed at the meeting with Martin to switch parties if he could be named as Goldwater's running-mate, a designation later given to U.S. Representative William E. Miller of New York. Goldwater reportedly rejected the overture because of Wallace's lack of strength outside the Deep South.
The unpledged electors in Alabama included the future U.S. senator, James Allen, then the lieutenant governor, and the subsequent Governor Albert Brewer, then the state House Speaker. National Democrats balked over Johnson's exclusion from the ballot but most supported the unpledged slate, which competed directly with the Republican electors. As The Tuscaloosa News explained, loyalist electors would have offered a clearer choice to voters than did the unpledged slate.
The 1964 Republican electors were the first since Reconstruction to prevail in Alabama. The Goldwater-Miller slate received 479,085 votes (69.5 percent) to the unpledged electors' 209,848 (30.5 percent). The Republican tide also brought to victory five Republican members of the United States House of Representatives, including William Louis Dickinson, who held the Montgomery-based district seat until 1993, and James D. Martin, the Gadsden oil products dealer who defeated then State Senator George C. Hawkins for the U.S. House seat formerly held by Carl Elliott. Hardly yet sworn into the U.S. House, Martin already had his eyes on Wallace's own position as governor.
Term limits in the Alabama Constitution prevented Wallace from seeking a second term in 1966. Therefore, Wallace offered his wife, Lurleen Wallace, as a surrogate candidate for governor. In the Democratic primary, she defeated two former governors, James E. Folsom and John Patterson, Attorney General Richmond Flowers Sr., and former U.S. Representative Carl Elliott. Largely through the work of Wallace's supporters, the Alabama restriction on gubernatorial succession was later modified (two consecutive terms).
Wallace defended his wife's proxy candidacy. He felt somewhat vindicated when Republicans in Idaho denied renomination in 1966 to Governor Robert E. Smylie, author of the article entitled "Why I Feel Sorry for Lurleen Wallace." In his memoirs, Wallace recounts his wife's ability to "charm crowds" and cast off invective: "I was immensely proud of her, and it didn't hurt a bit to take a back seat to her in vote-getting ability." Wallace rebuffed critics who claimed that he had "dragooned" his wife into the race. "She loved every minute of being governor the same way ... that Mrs. (Margaret) Smith loves being senator."
During the 1966 campaign, George Wallace signed state legislation to nullify desegregation guidelines between Alabama cities and counties and the former United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Wallace claimed that the law would thwart the national government from intervening in schools. Critics denounced Wallace's "political trickery" and expressed alarm at the potential forfeiture of federal funds. Republican gubernatorial candidate James D. Martin accused the Democrats of "playing politics with your children" and "neglecting academic excellence".
James Martin also opposed the desegregation guidelines and had sponsored a U.S. House amendment to forbid the placement of students and teachers on the basis of racial quotas. He predicted that Wallace's legislation would propel the issuance of a court order compelling immediate and total desegregaton in all public schools. Martin compared the new Alabama law to "another two-and-a-half minute stand in the schoolhouse door".
Lurleen Wallace overwhelmed Jim Martin in the general election on November 8, 1966. She was inaugurated in January 1967, but on May 7, 1968, she died in office of cancer at the age of forty-one, amid her husband's ongoing second presidential campaign. On her death, she was succeeded by Lieutenant Governor Albert Brewer, who had run without Republican opposition in the Wallace-Martin race. George Wallace's influence in state government thus subsided until his next bid for election in his own right in 1970. He was "first gentleman" for less than a year and a half.
Wallace ran for president in the 1968 election as the American Independent Party candidate, with Curtis LeMay as his candidate for vice president. Wallace hoped to force the House of Representatives to decide the election with one vote per state if he could obtain sufficient electoral votes to make him a power broker. Wallace hoped that southern states could use their clout to end federal efforts at desegregation. His platform contained generous increases for beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare. Wallace's foreign policy positions set him apart from the other candidates in the field. "If the Vietnam War was not winnable within 90 days of his taking office, Wallace pledged an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops ... Wallace described foreign aid as money 'poured down a rat hole' and demanded that European and Asian allies pay more for their defense."
Richard Nixon feared that Wallace might split the conservative vote and allow the Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, to prevail. Some Democrats feared Wallace's appeal to organized blue-collar workers would damage Humphrey in northern states such as Ohio, New Jersey, and Michigan. Wallace ran a "law and order" campaign similar to Nixon's, further worrying Republicans.
In Wallace's 1998 obituary, The Huntsville Times political editor John Anderson summarized the impact from the 1968 campaign: "His startling appeal to millions of alienated white voters was not lost on Richard Nixon and other Republican strategists. First Nixon, then Ronald Reagan, and finally George Herbert Walker Bush successfully adopted toned-down versions of Wallace's anti-busing, anti-federal government platform to pry low- and middle-income whites from the Democratic New Deal coalition." Dan Carter, a professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta, added: "George Wallace laid the foundation for the dominance of the Republican Party in American society through the manipulation of racial and social issues in the 1960s and 1970s. He was the master teacher, and Richard Nixon and the Republican leadership that followed were his students."
Wallace considered Happy Chandler, the former baseball commissioner and two-term former governor of Kentucky, as his running mate in his 1968 campaign as a third-party candidate; as one of Wallace's aides put it, "We have all the nuts in the country; we could get some decent people–-you working one side of the street and he working the other side." Wallace invited Chandler, but when the press published the prospect, Wallace's supporters objected: Chandler had supported the hiring of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Wallace retracted the invitation, and (after considering Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders) chose former Air Force General Curtis LeMay of California. LeMay was considered instrumental in the establishment in 1947 of the United States Air Force and an expert in military affairs. His four-star military rank, experience at Strategic Air Command and presence advising President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis were considered foreign-policy assets to the Wallace campaign. By 1968, LeMay had retired and was serving as chairman of the board of an electronics company, but the company threatened to dismiss him if he took a leave of absence to run for vice president. To keep LeMay on the ticket, Wallace backer and Texas oil tycoon H. L. Hunt set up a million-dollar fund to reimburse LeMay for any income lost in the campaign. Campaign aides tried to persuade LeMay to avoid questions relating to nuclear weapons, but when asked if he thought their use was necessary to win the Vietnam War, he first said that America can win in Vietnam without them. However, he alarmed the audience by further commenting, "we [Americans] have a phobia about nuclear weapons. I think there may be times when it would be most efficient to use nuclear weapons." The "politically tone-deaf" LeMay became a drag on Wallace's candidacy for the remainder of the campaign.
In 1968, when Wallace pledged that "If some anarchist lies down in front of my automobile, it will be the last automobile he will ever lie down in front of," and asserted that the only four letter words which hippies did not know were w-o-r-k and s-o-a-p; his rhetoric became famous. He accused Humphrey and Nixon of wanting to radically desegregate the South. Wallace said, "There's not a dime's worth of difference between the Republicans and Democrats," a campaign slogan that he had first perfected when Lurleen Wallace defeated James D. Martin.
Major media outlets observed the support Wallace received from extremist groups such as White Citizens' Councils. It has been noted that members of such groups had permeated the Wallace campaign by 1968 and, while Wallace did not openly seek their support, nor did he refuse it. Indeed, at least one case has been documented of the pro-Nazi and white supremacist Liberty Lobby distributing a pro-Wallace pamphlet entitled "Stand up for America" despite the campaign's denial of such a connection.
While Wallace carried five Southern states, won almost ten million popular votes and 46 electoral votes, Nixon received 301 electoral votes, more than required to win the election. Wallace remains the last non-Democratic, non-Republican candidate to win any electoral votes by vote of the people. (John Hospers in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1976, Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, "John Ewards" (presumed a misspelling of John Edwards) in 2004, and four different candidates in 2016 (Faith Spotted Eagle, John Kasich, Ron Paul, and Bernie Sanders) all received one electoral vote from faithless electors while Colin Powell received three electoral votes in 2016.) Wallace also received the vote of one North Carolina elector who had been pledged to Nixon.
Many found Wallace an entertaining campaigner. To "hippies" who called him a fascist, he replied, "I was killing fascists when you punks were in diapers." Another quote: "They're building a bridge over the Potomac for all the white liberals fleeing to Virginia."
Wallace decried the United States Supreme Court's binding opinion in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, which ordered immediate desegregation of Southern schools - he said the new Burger court was "no better than the Warren court" and called the justices "limousine hypocrites".
In 1970, Wallace sought the Democratic nomination against incumbent Governor Albert Brewer, who was the first gubernatorial candidate since Reconstruction to seek African-American voter support. Brewer unveiled a progressive platform and worked to build an alliance between blacks and the white working class. Of Wallace's out-of-state trips, Brewer said, "Alabama needs a full-time governor."
In the primary, Brewer received the most votes but failed to win a majority, which triggered a runoff election.
In what (later-U.S. President) Jimmy Carter called "one of the most racist campaigns in modern southern political history", Wallace aired television advertising with slogans such as "Do you want the black bloc electing your governor?" and circulated an ad showing a white girl surrounded by seven black boys, with the slogan "Wake Up Alabama! Blacks vow to take over Alabama." Wallace slurred Brewer, whom he called "Sissy Britches", and his family. In the runoff, Wallace narrowly won the Democratic nomination and won the general election in a landslide.
Though Wallace had promised not to run for president a third time, the day after the election, he flew to Wisconsin to campaign for the upcoming 1972 U.S. presidential election. Wallace, whose presidential ambitions would have been destroyed by a defeat for governor, has been said to have run "one of the nastiest campaigns in state history," using racist rhetoric while proposing few new ideas.
On January 13, 1972, Wallace declared himself a Democratic candidate, entering the field with George McGovern, 1968 nominee Hubert Humphrey, and nine other Democratic opponents. In Florida's primary, Wallace carried every county to win 42 percent of the vote; another of his opponents was John V. Lindsay, the liberal mayor of New York City, who had switched from Republican affiliation to enter the Democratic presidential primaries. In the 1972 campaign, Wallace announced that he no longer supported segregation and had always been a "moderate" on racial matters. This position was an echo of Nixon, who in 1969 had instituted the first Affirmative Action program, the Philadelphia Plan that established goals and timetables. However, Wallace (similarly to Nixon) expressed continued opposition to desegregation busing.
For the next four months, Wallace's campaign proceeded extremely well. However, it came to an abrupt halt on May 15, 1972, when he was shot five times by Arthur Bremer while campaigning at the Laurel Shopping Center in Laurel, Maryland, at a time when he was receiving high ratings in national opinion polls. Bremer was seen at a Wallace rally in Wheaton, Maryland, earlier that day and two days earlier at a rally in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Wallace was hit in the abdomen and chest, and one of the bullets lodged in Wallace's spinal column, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. A five-hour operation was needed that evening, and Wallace had to receive several pints of blood in order to survive. Three others who were wounded in the shooting also survived.
Bremer's diary, An Assassin's Diary, published after his arrest, shows he was motivated in the assassination attempt by a desire for fame, not by political ideology. He had considered President Nixon as an earlier target. He was convicted at trial. On August 4, 1972, Bremer was sentenced to 63 years in prison, later reduced to 53 years. Bremer served 35 years and was released on parole on November 9, 2007.
CBS News correspondent David Dick won an Emmy Award for his coverage of the attempt on Wallace's life.
Following the assassination attempt, Wallace was visited at the hospital by Democratic Congresswoman and presidential primary rival Shirley Chisholm, a representative from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. At the time, she was the nation's only African-American female member of Congress. Despite their ideological differences and the opposition of Chisholm's constituents, Chisholm felt visiting Wallace was the humane thing to do. Other people to visit Wallace in hospital were President Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern and Ted Kennedy. He also received telegrams from former President Lyndon Johnson, future president Ronald Reagan and Pope Paul VI.
After the shooting, Wallace won primaries in Maryland and Michigan, but his near assassination effectively ended his campaign. From his wheelchair, Wallace spoke on July 11, 1972, at the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida.
Since Wallace was out of Alabama for more than 20 days while he was recovering in Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland, the state constitution required Lieutenant Governor Jere Beasley to serve as acting governor from June 5 until Wallace's return to Alabama on July 7. Wallace resumed his gubernatorial duties and easily won the 1974 primary and general election, when he defeated Republican State Senator Elvin McCary, a real estate developer from Anniston, who received fewer than 15 percent of the ballots cast.
In 1992, when asked to comment on the 20th anniversary of his attempted assassination, Wallace replied, "I've had 20 years of pain."
In November 1975, Wallace announced his fourth bid for the presidency. Wallace's campaign was plagued by voter concern about his health as well as the media use of images that portrayed him as nearly helpless. His supporters complained that such coverage was motivated by bias, citing the discretion used in coverage of Franklin D. Roosevelt's paralysis, before television became commercially available. In the southern primaries and caucuses, Wallace carried only Mississippi, South Carolina and his home state of Alabama. If the popular vote in all primaries and caucuses were combined, Wallace would have placed third behind former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter and California Governor Jerry Brown. After the primaries were completed, and he had lost several Southern primaries to Carter, Wallace left the race in June 1976. He eventually endorsed Carter, who faced Republican incumbent Gerald R. Ford. Wallace later claimed that he had facilitated a fellow southerner's nomination; in point of fact, no position advocated by Wallace was included in the 1976 Democratic platform.
In the late 1970s, Wallace announced that he was a born-again Christian and apologized to black civil rights leaders for his past actions as a segregationist. He said that while he had once sought power and glory, he realized he needed to seek love and forgiveness. In 1979, Wallace said of his stand in the schoolhouse door: "I was wrong. Those days are over, and they ought to be over."
In the 1982 Alabama gubernatorial Democratic primary, Wallace's main opponents were Lieutenant Governor George McMillan and Alabama House Speaker Joe McCorquodale. In the primary, McCorquodale was eliminated, and the vote went to a runoff, with Wallace holding a slight edge over McMillan. Wallace won the Democratic nomination by a margin of 51 to 49 percent. In the general election, his opponent was Montgomery Republican Mayor Emory Folmar. Polling experts at first thought the 1982 election was the best chance since Reconstruction for a Republican to be elected as governor of Alabama. Ultimately, though, it was Wallace, not Folmar, who claimed victory.
During Wallace's final term as governor (1983–1987) he made a record number of black appointments to state positions, including, for the first time, two black people as members in the same cabinet.
On April 2, 1986, Wallace announced at a press conference in Montgomery that he would not run for a fifth term as Governor of Alabama, and would retire from public life after leaving the governor's mansion in January 1987. Wallace achieved four gubernatorial terms across three decades, totaling 16 years in office. It is a national record tied by others but thus far surpassed only by Terry Branstad of Iowa, who served six terms from 1983 to 1999 and from 2011 to 2017, and former Vice President George Clinton of New York, who served twenty-one non-consecutive years as governor between 1777 and 1804.
Wallace married Lurleen Brigham Burns on May 22, 1943. The couple had four children together: Bobbi Jo (1944) Parsons, Peggy Sue (1950) Kennedy, George III, known as George Junior (1951), and Janie Lee (1961) Dye, who was named after Robert E. Lee. Lurleen Wallace was the first woman to be elected governor of Alabama. In 1961, in keeping with the practice of many at the time to shield patients from discussion of cancer, which was greatly feared, Wallace had withheld information from her that a uterine biopsy had found possibly precancerous cells. After Lurleen's death in 1968, the couple's younger children, aged 18, 16, and 6, were sent to live with family members and friends for care (their eldest daughter had already married and left home).
Their son, commonly called George Wallace Jr., is a Democrat-turned-Republican formerly active in Alabama politics. He was twice elected state treasurer as a Democrat, and twice elected to the Alabama Public Service Commission. He lost a race in 2006 for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. In 2010, Wallace Jr. failed by a wide margin to win the Republican nod to regain his former position as state treasurer.
On January 4, 1971, Wallace wed the former Cornelia Ellis Snively (1939–2009), a niece of former Alabama Governor Jim Folsom, known as "Big Jim". "C'nelia" had been a performer and was nicknamed "the Jackie Kennedy of the rednecks". The couple had a bitter divorce in 1978. A few months after that divorce, Cornelia told Parade magazine, "I don't believe George needs a family. He just needs an audience. The family as audience wasn't enough for his ego." The second Mrs. Wallace died at the age of 69 on January 8, 2009.
On September 9, 1981, Wallace married Lisa Taylor, a country music singer; they divorced in 1987.
During his final years, Wallace publicly recanted his racist views and asked for forgiveness from African Americans.
At a restaurant a few blocks from the State Capitol, Wallace became something of a fixture. In constant pain, he was surrounded by an entourage of old friends and visiting well-wishers and continued this ritual until a few weeks before his death. Wallace died of septic shock from a bacterial infection in Jackson Hospital in Montgomery on September 13, 1998. He suffered from respiratory problems in addition to complications from his gunshot spinal injury. His grave is located at Greenwood Cemetery, in Montgomery.
With four failed runs for president, he was unsuccessful in national politics. However, his impact on American politics was enormous and earned him the appellation "the most influential loser" in 20th century American politics, according to biographers Dan T. Carter and Stephan Lesher.The George Wallace Tunnel on Interstate 10 which runs underneath Mobile, Alabama is named in his honor.
Wallace was the subject of a documentary, George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire (2000), shown by PBS on The American Experience.
The TNT cable network produced a movie, George Wallace (1997), directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Gary Sinise. Sinise received an Emmy Award for his performance during a ceremony held the day Wallace died.