American Values Under Fire: A Response to the Civil Rights Movement

American Values Under Fire: A Response to the Civil Rights Movements

In the United States of America, the 1950’s and the 1960’s were times of vast amounts of social, economic and legal changes that revolutionized how America and Americans addressed contemporary issues. This era of the United States, however, was neither without dissension nor conflict, nor was it without domestic bloodshed. The battle for civil rights was fought on many planes including but not limited to politics in the Senate and the House of Representatives; the White House with Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon; in State legislatures and elections; the Federal Judicial system in the U.S. Supreme Court; and in the grassroots movements and riots that on many occasions turned bloody. In addition to this complicated and convoluted domestic environment was the turbulent reality of the Cold War, which began after the end of World War II. In this environment, many of the government’s domestic activities in the U.S. were focused on limiting Communism and Left-Wing Liberalism from taking shape in the United States, thought to be capable of subverting the capitalist system and the American way of life. Both domestic and abroad in the international spectrum, the 50’s and 60’s exemplified a battle over political, economic, societal, educational and familial values. It was precisely these values that Alabama governor, George C. Wallace claimed were being destroyed by the Federal Judiciary system and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. During a speech given in 1964, Wallace criticized the Supreme Court, President Lyndon B. Johnson and the press, claiming that they were “left-wing liberals,” associated with Communists, responsible for tyrannizing the country and robbing citizens of their rights.[1]

George C. Wallace was a staunch opponent of desegregation and this was evinced in his 1963 gubernatorial inaugural address when he said, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”[2] Wallace ran for office both as a Democrat and as an Independent, with three bids for the presidency and no victory. He nonetheless served five terms as the Governor of Alabama and was involved in politics for many years, even after an assassination attempt in 1972, which left him paralyzed.[3] Wallace represented a larger body of people in the United States who believed that desegregation was an infringement upon their rights. He gave a public face and a name to their concerns and fought for what they believed was the correct direction for the nation, and particularly in the south. In his July 4, 1964 speech, Wallace condemned the Federal Judiciary for being, as he considered, like “Hitler, Mussolini, or Khrushchev,”—the Communist leader of Russia after Stalin’s death—for what he believed to be communistic decisions of the court in “every single decision of the last ten years,” since 1954.[4]

As a result of WWII there was an economic boom when people who customarily would not have been considered for military service or industrial work, for example women and people of color, were employed by these industries and in the services. Although the economic growth of these two groups as a whole were substantially less than White-male Americans, their gains were subsequently more than they had been prior to the war. For African Americans, in the 1950’s this allowed for further distribution of their tasks to activities other than work and for their children to attend school and even college; when and where they were accepted. In 1954, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pursued and won the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, under Chief Justice Earl Warren: Brown v. Board of Education, which determined that segregation in Public Schools, was unconstitutional. This decision was followed up and supported by TITLE IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Desegregation of Public Schools. Governor Wallace believed this law would “destroy neighborhood schools[,]” but he did not provide any reasoning for how the schools would be destroyed in his speech, all he did was make clear that he was against desegregation.[5] The Brown v. Board of Education decision went into effect in 1957, and that is when the incident of the “Little Rock Nine” occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas. Nine African American students were blockaded by the National Guard from entering Little Rock High School, of which they were enrolled, and the week after they were escorted into the school by Paratroopers under President Eisenhower’s order, signifying that just because something was written into law that it did not necessarily mean it was something adhered to.[6] Wallace considered this an “invasion of the State of Arkansas…by the armed forces of the United States and maintained in the state against the will of the people and without consent of state legislatures[,]” and as such was a tyrannical act.[7]

So, when George C. Wallace accused the Federal Judiciary of being as tyrannical as “King George III”—the British king who presided during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783)—he voiced what he and many others believed; that the U.S. government was usurping their liberties.[8]  Wallace considered the Federal Judiciary to be “the greatest single threat to individual freedom,” fearing that the new laws would declare unconstitutional their “customs, traditions, and beliefs.”[9] For example, the Abington School District v. Schempp case outlawed reading the Bible in public schools, which compromised all three: customs, beliefs and traditions; and was viewed, as Wallace said, as “the destruction of the concept of God and the abolition of religion,” a sensational and unfounded claim, but nonetheless it is how many people felt at the time.[10] The claim was unfounded because the case neither outlawed religion, nor prayer in public schools, just the compulsory reading of the Bible in an effort to protect the 1st Amendment rights of people who did not choose to do so.[11] Yet, the Federal Judiciary system was not the only component of the U.S. government under fire, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was also suspect in Wallace’s opinion.

The third Civil Rights Act since 1957, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, official titled: PUBLIC LAW 88-352-July 2, 1964, was approved by the House of Representatives during the 2nd Session of the 88th Congress of the United States, and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson the year after President Kennedy was assassinated. Although it was celebrated by many as a long overdue piece of legislation, by others it was viewed as an overreaching act and as an abuse of the Federal Government’s power to invade into the private lives of Americans. In the beginning of George C. Wallace’s speech in 1964, he labeled the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as “the most monstrous piece of legislation ever enacted by the United States Congress” and called it “a fraud, a sham, and a hoax” because he believed its tenets to be oppressive in nature.[12] Wallace charged that the Act violated the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the U.S. Constitution. In particular, Wallace was concerned about the Freedom of Speech clause of the 1st Amendment and Trial by Jury clauses of the 5th, 6th, and 7th Amendments. In fact, TITLE XI—Miscellaneous; Sec. 1101 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, states: “In any proceeding for criminal contempt arising under title II, III, IV, V, VI, or VI of this Act, the accused, upon demand thereof, shall be entitled to a trial by jury, which shall conform as near as may be to the practice in criminal cases[,]” which contradicts Wallace’s claim that the Act excludes one from the right of a trial by jury.[13] When Wallace claims that the law will “destroy the individual freedom and liberty in this country”[14] and given that Title II of the Act addresses “Discrimination in Public Places[,]”[15] it is a fair assumption that Wallace was not speaking about the liberties of all American citizens, as many Americans had been denied their full liberties under the Jim Crow laws. Many of Wallace’s assertions about what the Civil Rights Act of 1964, had the authority to do, and the predictions about how it would subvert the values of American of citizens were not grounded in actual text of the Act.

In addition to Wallace’s inaccurate assessment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he also accused the “American press” for inaccurately informing the United States population of what was contained in the bill.[16] In his 1964 speech, Wallace asserted that the “truth” of the Act was concealed by “left-wing liberals, Communist sympathizers, and members of the Americans for Democratic Action and other Communist front organizations” to sway public opinion and to subvert American government.[17] Essentially, Wallace was asserting that the people who were seeking to make the laws of the United States in the 1950’ and 1960’s more equitable and to hold those who violated that equality responsible for their actions; with being Communists. And given that the United States was enthralled in the Cold War with communist Soviet Union, Wallace’s rhetoric and fears of communist subversion were shared by many Americans at the time. Notwithstanding Wallace’s perception of the drafters of the bill, in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the only groups not protected by Title VII—Equal Employment Opportunity; were communists and those associated with communist activities.[18] So, while the fears about the communist threat were real, as it turned out it was Wallace who was spreading information that was not true about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that the bill was not necessarily drafted by Communists, but rather by people who were interested in ensuring individual freedoms and liberties of the American people.

George C. Wallace’s speech in 1964 reveals the fear and apprehension of many of the people in the United States during the 1960’s in response the Civil Rights movements that were occurring. The new laws the U.S. government was implementing, in their perspective, were in direct contrast to their traditional values and many of their core beliefs. They believed they were losing liberties and freedoms, while in reality marginalized people were gaining liberties and freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, which had been denied to them. Since before slavery ended in the U.S. in 1865, there had been a fear of a mixing of the races and of a watering down of American culture, and although the legal transitions of the 50’s and 60’s tore down and discredited many of the boundaries that had been drawn between the races, it did not quiet those fears. The function of Wallace’s speech was to incite a fearful reaction from the public to demand a retraction of the Federal government and judiciary system and he played on Cold War fears in attempt to achieve his end; safeguarding traditional American values. The people of Alabama responded to Governor Wallace by continuing to vote him into office until 1986, and this is evidence that many people shared his convictions.


“George Wallace—Segregation Forever.mp4.” (accessed June 9, 2013).

Roark, James L., et al. The American Promise: A History of the United States. 5th Edition. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2012.

Waldo E. Martin, Jr. and Patricia Sullivan, eds. “George C. Wallace.” Civil Rights in the United States. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2000. U.S. History In Context. Web. 2 June 2013.

Wallace, George C. “Document 28-3: George C. Wallace Denounces the Civil Rights Movement.” In Reading the American Past: Selected Historical Document, 5th Edition, edited by Michael P. Johnson, 259-263. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2012.

United States House of Representatives.  “The Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Public Law 88-352- July 2, 1964. 88th Cong. 2nd sess, July 2, 1964.                                     


[1]George C. Wallace, “Document 28-3: George C. Wallace Denounces the Civil Rights Movement.”  (New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2012.),  260.

[2] “George Wallace—Segregation Forever.mp4.”                     (accessed June 9, 2013).

[3] Waldo E. Martin, Jr. and Patricia Sullivan, eds. “George C. Wallace.” Civil Rights in the United States. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2000. U.S. History In Context. Web. 2 June 2013.

[4]George C. Wallace, 262.

[5] George C. Wallace, 261.

[6] Roark, James L., et al. “The American Promise: A History of the United States.” 5th Edition. (New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2012), ch. 27.

[7] George C. Wallace, 262.

[8] George C. Wallace, 261.

[9] George C. Wallace, 261.

[10] George C. Wallace, 263.

[11] Roark, James L., et al., 938.

[12] George C. Wallace, 260.

[13] United States House of Representatives.  “The Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Public Law 88-352-July 2, 1964. 88th Cong. 2nd sess., 1964, 268.  

[14] George C. Wallace, 261.

[15]United States House of Representatives.  “The Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Public Law 88-352-July 2, 1964. 88th Cong. 2nd sess., 1964, 243.  

[16] George C. Wallace, 261.

[17] George C. Wallace, 260-263.

[18] United States House of Representatives.  “The Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Public Law 88-352-July 2, 1964. 88th Cong. 2nd sess., 1964, 256.  

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