Production Team: X
Interview Date: October 22, 1988
Camera Rolls: 4014-4015
Sound Rolls: 404
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Tom Turnipseed, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 22, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Tom, going back into '66, '67, when you first got involved with George Wallace, you were telling me that you really believed. When you saw George Wallace back then, what did you believe in?
Well, I was an unreconstructed Southerner, born in Mobile, Alabama, and to just put it to you succinctly, in our fourth, I never will forget our little fourth grade, uh, book about Alabama history. It, it showed a chapter about slavery, and it had pictures of little Black children dancing and singing, and it said, "The slaves were very happy, the children danced and sang all day." And then their parents would dance and sing at night, and so forth. And that's the kind of culture I was brought up in. But, George Wallace was a defender of all this, for an average person of the South at the time. And that's the way I looked at him as a leader at that time.
Did Wallace represent an anti-establishment thing to you?
Yeah, he was anti-establishment to a large degree. He was, uh--
Can you stop for one second, and when I, when I say that, you're going to start off with "George Wallace was..." So, was Wallace an anti-establishment?
George Wallace was an anti-establishment person. And, um, that appealed to me. I always had a lot of rebel in me, which was part of the, the lost cause, I guess, of the Confederacy, so to speak. And here was George Wallace taking on the Yankees again, taking on the liberals, taking on the Civil Rights Movement, and so forth. And uh, and doing it in a way that, uh, you know, appealed to the average person in the South, the little guy.
Let's stop it for a second.
You were telling me that, you know, as this campaign started, or even before hand, Wallace was spreading out and talking to a lot of people up North, getting really large crowds. How was he reacting to these crowds, and what would he tell you about it?
Well, he liked the crowds. In fact, Governor Wallace would show crowds in the Northern cities, we would always book him into some large auditorium or coliseum, and we'd get a big turnout, particularly after the riots occurred in, in early in '68, and, uh, he liked the crowds a lot. The crowds were kind of frightening in a lot of ways, though. They, uh, like I say, it was in a context of a lot of civil unrest, and, and the crowds were really racially inspired. They were, they were racist. And, uh, but anyway they turned out, in just droves and all, and I think it, it kind of had, uh, the political establishment of the country very concerned at the time, because of the turnout.
What happened with the campaign after King's death?
Well, it, I think it probably picked up a little steam, the campaign did, when, when Dr. King was shot. And then, of course, I think Bobby Kennedy was assassinated too along at that time, there was a lot of apprehension about, whether or not there would be an attempt on Governor Wallace's life. He had a lot of threats too. But I kn--it, it seemed like that, that type of unrest, you know, and, and what happened just after Dr. King was, uh, was assassinated in Memphis, with the riots in the Northern cities, it helped the momentum of our campaign a lot. You know, it brought out all the anti-civil rights feelings of the particular ethnic groups in the North, and, uh, it benefited Wallace's candidacy a great deal.
Did you find that ironic?
Not really. Ah, it, it's uh, you know, I think, in, in retrospect it's, it's, it was a campaign built on racism, the Wallace campaign. And that's what it really was. I mean, we could, at the time, we didn't want to admit, and we didn't even think it. But it, it, that's what it was. That was the hardcore of that campaign was, was anti-civil rights. And then un--to a small degree, anti--uh, the, the war protesters too, the, the Vietnam war protesters.
You were at a lot of these rallies and things. How did you personally feel about the reaction Wallace was getting?
Well, I got a little afraid of it, you know, I'm, I was more of a genteel Southern segregationist, you know, we were taught, you know, the paternalistic attitude about Black people that, you know, they, uh, were really good people, but they just didn't quite, they weren't quite up to the level of, of White people in, in any respect. That's what we were, was imbued in us through our culture, so to speak, and, and, uh, it just, uh, uh, to, to see people that would just vehemently want, you know, kill Black people and so forth, and that's what, the some of the Northern ethnic groups exhibited at some of the rallies. In fact, I know, I never will forget one up in Milwaukee, at the arena up there, Father Groppi, who was a, a civil rights leader had a group of, of people there with signs and so forth, protesting the Vietnam war, and, and protesting the, uh, anti-civil rights, uh, and protesting Governor Wallace too, for that matter, and some of the local ethnic blue-collar workers, I don't know what their derivation was, Polish, German, whatever, in Milwaukee, started an encounter with them, and it got into, to violence, right within the arena. And, and us good old boys from down South were trying to, to save the Groppi people, is what it ended up being, but it got real frightening. It sure did. Particularly in, in some of those large metropolitan areas in the North.
You were telling me specifically you were surprised by the reaction, and try to incorporate this into the question, by the reaction of Northern ethnics.
Yes, well I, for instance, in Massachusetts the reaction of Northern ethnics was, uh, brought home to me profoundly. It's one of the reasons I started opening my eyes a little bit and changing my views a great deal. But, in Massachusetts we had a monumental task achieving ballot position. We had a deadline by which you had to have so many registered electors to sign petitions to get on the ballot--
L-let me cut you for one second, because, that's, can you cut for one second?
Tell me about Webster, Massachusetts.
Well, we were putting on a rally in Webster, Massachusetts, working in the ballot position campaign for Governor Wallace. And Webster's a small town in South Central Massachusetts. It has a strong Polish-American population. So I felt like maybe go to the Polish-American club and see could we use their hall for a rally. And uh, I walked in the hall and, and told them who I was with, and they said, "Great, we like George Wallace, gosh, you know." And I said, "Well, let me look at your hall." And I looked at it, and it was perfect for what we wanted, and, we made a deal on the time and so forth, and I offered to pay them for it, and they said, "Look, we'll just let you have it free, we like George Wallace that much." Then they said, "Well, just stay here and have," they had a little bar too, and it was getting late in the afternoon, they said, "Have a drink with us, and we'll talk to you a little bit more about Governor Wallace." And I did that, and just before I left, the head guy there, the manager and the head bartender looked me right in the eye and he said, "Now, Mr. Turnipseed," he says, "now, when George Wallace is elected president, he's going to line up all the niggers and kill them, isn't he?" And all of a sudden, I realized the man was serious, and I said, "Hell, no. I mean, you know, he's, he's worried about this and that and the other thing, but nothing like that," I mean, he just, you know. And it kind of got to me. And, uh, a lot. And, to know that these people really felt that way, that they wanted to kill Black people, you know, and it got me starting to think in changing my views from that point on, I guess. I mean, subconsciously, at least.
In a typical Wallace rally what would happen?
Well, usually we had a lot of entertainment from Nashville. We had, uh, uh, country-western music, uh, Governor Wallace always liked to think that, you know, Southerners that moved up North were kind of a core group he had. Like in Detroit, you know, moving up and working in the automobile industry, et cetera. I remember a rally we had at Cobalt Hall, and, uh, we had a country singer sing this big hit song at the time about Detroit City. "Last night I took a drink in Detroit City..." It's the plight of the, the working man that goes up North to get a job, and the crowd, there was a riot that night too. Ah, between anti-Wallace, pro-Wallace supporters. But, the, the rallies went generally, singers, we'd have, uh, bands and songs, and u--usually some headline star that would be advertised, you know, in the media previously. And just to come hear George Wallace in Cobalt Hall and, and hear Jeannie C. Riley and Kitty Wells, whoever, was a singer. We had a lot of them. I remember Jerry Lee Lewis, uh, we always worried whether or not he was going to tear up the piano. If he didn't like the piano, he'd just kick it and tear it up, you know, but--
And then what would happen after--
Well, they would, then, uh, we'd had it to always pass the collection plate around. This was almost like a, in a way, uh, a semblance of a religious thing almost, a sud--certain fervor about it. People get all exited and, we'd always pass a hat, you know, and take up money from the audience too, you know, for the campaign. And Wallace would, would make a speech, and, uh, they would always be very, very loudly received and so forth. And, uh, and like I say, uh, in answer to the previous question, we would get pictures of the crowd, and he would like to show people the pictures of those crowds, I think it kind of, eh, he emotionally got a, a charge out of the big crowds and the reaction of the crowds to what he was saying, like politicians do.
Would he play off the protesters? Would there be protesters?
Oh yes. He was, uh, adroit at that--
Yeah, he was very, he was very good, Governor Wallace was in, in, somebody would, protesters would be in the audience to have a little back and forth and, and be able to get the crowd going against the protesters so to speak. He did that very, very well. He also did it very well with the media, the press. Ah, I remember him, in, in a rally we were having in Alabama, and, down in the textile area. And this particularly rally was an outdoor rally. It was on a flatbed truck. We had country music and then Governor Wallace got up and made his standard talk. And one of the things he'd always say in Alabama when he talked to a group, he'd say, particularly working people, he says, "You know, they look down their nose at us and call us peapickers and peckerwoods and woolhats and lintheads and rednecks." He said, "They're being facetious. They're looking down their nose at us and putting us down because we might not have as much as they do." He says, "But if, if they want to call us rednecks, let 'em call us rednecks." He says, "If they mean that we were, have our necks red from a good honest day's toil in the summer sun, let 'em call us rednecks." He says, "There's two things about them, though." He said, "Number one, they won't get out and work in the summer sun. And number two, their hair's so long their necks wouldn't get red anyway!" And the crowd'd go crazy. You know, "Go, Governor!" And he would point out the reporters, from like the New York Times and pa-
Tom, you were working on getting Wallace on the ballot in all 50 states. Why was it so hard to get Wallace on the ballot?
Well, it was very hard to get Governor Wallace on the ballot, because, you know, we have a traditional two party system in the state and the Republican and Democratic parties have ballot position. But the various state laws on qualifying a new party are all different. Some require a certain amount of registered voters to sign petitions. Some required having a nominating convention with a certain number of people coming there. About three states had no way to get on the ballot. We had to go to court, went all the way to U.S. Supreme Court on a case from Ohio, and won that, and then I think Idaho, and I forget the other state, but it was three states with no way to get on. And we finally got on the ballot in all the states which, we spent a lot of our time, energy and effort, and so forth, and by that time, the Republicans with their Southern strategy got involved. And Strom Thurmond and so forth, and they were just about as racist as the Democrats in-- I mean, as, as Wallace, so they said "Why waste your vote, just vote, we're going to look out for you too." You know the people who had these same feelings. So that's why our vote went up and then went down towards the end. You know, "Why waste your vote," plus we spent our energy on ballot position, it kind of burned us out, so to speak.
Now, you told me that Wallace used to talk amongst his campaign people about how he felt, if he really thought he was going to win the presidency, or what he thought he was going to accomplish. What did he think he was going to accomplish?
Well, you know, he always, I guess you figure you got an outside chance to win. And he would, he felt like it, you know, it got down, I think in '72, he adopted the tactic of "Let's send them a message," and we did it in '68 too, as well as I can remember.
But in '68 what was he saying?
Well, you know, we, we, we're, they're listening to us. For the first time they're going to listen to us guys, you know, us everyday working class people, you know, who go to work and so forth and so on, and then all the code words about the other people that don't work. Who really do work, but you know, the, the, the, the code words that have a racial connotation to them, so many of them. And he, he was kind of a forerunner in a lot of ways, it, it appears, uh, uh, of the, of the present situation we have in politics the last eight years or so, of the Republicans. They're more sophisticated with it, but he was able to kind of set that anti-civil rights, anti-Vietnam protest agenda at that time, it's been incorporated more sophisticatedly into Republican politics of today. And he was more open. He was much more open with it, you know, what he stood for. Now it's more subtle, but uh, he was, he, his message got across. The only thing is, I think nowadays, from what I know in talking with George Wallace, in talking with him on the phone and with his family and so forth, and read about him, his views have changed demonstrably from then to now.
Did he think he could win?
I think maybe for, for a while, maybe he thought he had a chance. I think he, he thought he had a chance to win. Ah, you know, particularly in '72, when I, I was working for him in a couple of states, North Carolina and South Carolina, he got very, very strong, and, I think that at time he felt like he could win. In '68, I think up until the middle of the campaign he thought he had a chance to win.
Early on, we have to stay with '68, what was his strategy in terms of deadlocking everything? That he, that--
Oh sure. Oh yeah, that's, I'm, I'm sorry, that--one of the big tactics of Governor Wallace, and he expressed it among, to us and he did it in his talks, he's very open with, with his, uh, what he wanted to do, was that, uh, the whole electoral college that we have in this country is kind of an anachronistic situation where each state has so many electoral votes. And then if you don't get a majority of the electoral votes, the election goes to the U.S. House of Representatives. And that had been the dream and the hope of the, the Southern conservatives and, and the Southern racist situation since 1948 with the old States Rights party that Strom Thurmond and Fielding Wright was his running mate from Mississippi, is to tie up the electoral college with a third force, you don't have a majority in the electoral college, the election goes in the House of Representatives, that gives you more bargaining power for what you believed in. And that, that was openly expressed, uh, and not just with his aides, but I mean he, he talked about it in, uh, in news interviews, and, and maybe some of his speeches too, as I recollect.
What was a typical rally like, very briefly?
It was--a typical George Wallace rally, particularly in a big city in the North or South, was, was really an event. I, we had good country music and bands and so forth. Then we had a preacher that would get up and give a message on fundraising. How we all had to dig a little deeper and we'd pass the hat, and this was almost like a church type thing. And then bring Governor Wallace on. An he'd make a rip-roaring speech and so forth. It was quite an event. The crowd would be very, very excited usually, and he was, uh, quite an orator.
What about the class appeal? You were telling me about how he would make that class appeal.
He was very strong with the class appeal, particularly in Alabama. He was, uh, he was opposed by the, the, the, the big corporate elements in Alabama because he was very progressive on social issues, issues like workmen's comp, unemployment compensation, et cetera. And I remember talking, when he was talking to the textile workers, you know, speaking on the flatbed truck, he would talk about, uh, Mountainbrook. This is what he would say. And Mountainbrook happened to be, and still is, I think, an exclusive suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, where the wealthier people live, and, and Governor Wallace would say, you know, "It's easy for these people up in Mountainbrook to be for this and that and the other thing because they leave their air-conditioned offices down at the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company where the workingman works there in the steel mill, and they drive up in their limousines back up to the Mountainbrook Country Club, and they sit up at the Mountainbrook Country Club sipping their martinis with their little fingers in the air like this. And they say, 'Oh, we gotta have integration, for the poor workingman down in the valley.' And they take your children and they bus your children from here to there to kingdom come, and guess where the rich man's children go to? Where they go to school? They go to the all White private school." And uh, he would point out that class hypocrisy, it was racism with a class twist to it.