Bull Connor, George Wallace, Jefferson Davis: Who Are These Historical Villains?

President Joe Biden’s comments on the good and the bad side of history are coming under closer scrutiny days after he sought, unsuccessfully, to win over fellow Democrats like the senses. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to change Senate rules and enact new voting rights protections.

“At important moments in history, they present a choice,” Biden said in his Atlanta speech earlier this week. “Do you want to side with Dr. King or George Wallace?” Do you want to side with John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to side with 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 that symbolizes the civil rights era. He was shot by an assassin in 1968. We celebrate his birthday with a federal holiday Monday. There is a monument to his image on the National Mall in Washington.

John Lewis was civil rights activist who was beaten on a bridge in Selma, Alabama, who served in Congress and was hailed by all political parties after his death in 2020.

Abraham Lincoln was the president who restored the union “without malice to anyone” and who was also shot by an assassin. His monument is near King’s on the Mall.

But these other names, important in history and once known throughout the country, are not so well known today.

Who are George Wallace, Bull Connor and Jefferson Davis?

Wallace, who Biden paints like a foil to King, was a longtime segregationist and former governor of Alabama. A Southern Democrat, he ran for president in 1968 under the American Independent Party and won five Southern states. He is the last candidate from a non-major party to win electoral votes.

Connor, who Biden, described as a foil for Lewis, was born Theophilus Eugene Connor. He was the former public safety commissioner of 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 to be.

Here is a 1963 dispatch in Time magazine when black Americans in Birmingham rose up under King’s leadership:

“Birmingham was unquestionably the harshest segregated city in the South, from the point of view of Negroes. And it was symbolized by Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene (“Bull”) Connor, who had intimidated Negroes for 23 years with raucous threats and club-swinging cops. It was against Connor’s Birmingham that King secretly began recruiting volunteers. …”

Davis, who Biden referenced as a foil to Lincoln, was the president of the Confederacy – a man who helped tear the nation apart after Lincoln was elected president. Statues of Davis have been torn down in recent years, although many remain.

It’s easy to see why Biden chose these three characters as villains in his speech. Republicans bristled at being compared to Wallace, Connor and Davis.

“How deeply — deeply — unpresidential,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Capitol Hill Wednesday. “I have known, loved and personally respected Joe Biden for many years. I did not recognize the man on the podium yesterday.”
On Friday, the White House clarified Biden’s comments, arguing he was not making a “humane” comparison.

“I think anyone who listens to this speech and speaks on the level, as my mother would say, would notice that he wasn’t comparing them as humans, he was comparing choice to these characters in the story and where they go. position themselves as they determine whether or not they will support the fundamental right to vote,” said press secretary Jen Psaki.

Invoking Connor and Wallace has been popular among Democrats. Former President Barack Obama mentioned the two men at Lewis’ 2020 funeral.

“Bull Connor may be gone,” Obama said. “But today we see with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of black Americans. George Wallace may be gone. But we can see our federal government dispatching officers to use tear gas and batons against protesters peaceful.”

Nor is the story as simple as Biden suggested, at least in Wallace’s case.

When he was first appointed governor in 1963, Wallace promised, in a disgusting way, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He revered the Confederacy and worked to disrupt the civil rights movement, behind which the Washington Democrats were. Wallace’s appeal extended outside the South, however, even though he represented an old version of a changing party.

He ran as an American independent in 1968, but in 1972, back as a Democrat, he ran again, pushing opposition to the bus (ask Biden about that). But he was shot by a madman and his campaign was cut short even as it gathered momentum.

He still held power in the party in 1976, even though he was 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 stepping out of the race.

Wallace began to regret the racism he once exploited – he expressed remorse and tried to rehabilitate his image, even asking Lewis for forgiveness. Lewis wrote a New York Times essay in 1998 after Wallace’s death, saying he should be forgiven.

“George Wallace should be remembered for his ability to change,” Lewis wrote. “And we are better off as a nation because of our ability to forgive and recognize that our political leaders are human and largely reflect the social currents in the river of history.”

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