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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Bert Nettles, July 13, 1974. Interview A-0015. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Wallace's grip on Alabama politics

When asked whether neoconservativism would ever take control of the Republican Party, Nettles explains how he thought George Wallace and Wallace's legacy would continue to influence state politics in Alabama. In the process, he compares Wallace to Huey Long, leading to an interesting summary of Wallace's various political interests.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Bert Nettles, July 13, 1974. Interview A-0015. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WALTER DE VRIES:
What do you say about the assertion though . . . maybe this is a residual . . . the old southern strategy . . . but that the way to win, the way to build the Republican party in this state and the South is to pick up conservative white, Democrat voters, particularly on the race issue and build from there.
BERT NETTLES:
Well, you see, we haven't been able to do that, if you had that choice, because of the Wallace situation.
WALTER DE VRIES:
When he leaves the scene, if that's possible.
BERT NETTLES:
I would disagree with it. I think that's very short range and very short sighted. Jim Martin tried that and was almost successful. He almost beat Lister Hill on that theory. The US Senate race back in '62. But it's a short range proposition. And I don't see how any Republican in a county wide-certainly state wide-position, can win consistently without a good support among the black community. And I think it's . . . . You just can't cut out one large segment of the state. Cut them out almost completely. And then hope to win 2/3rds or 3/4s of the remaining segment. In an area that's traditionally been Democratic. I think that's very short sighted philosophy, basically. And people are more intelligent than that. Your situation has changed. You have got a whole new generation of voters. You've got the old . . . even Wallace himself has mellowed to a great extent, publicly, on the racial stand.
WALTER DE VRIES:
On that score, do you think that's a basic change? Is it a real change?
BERT NETTLES:
Publicly it appears to be. But look at the people the governor surrounds himself with. Strom Thurmond has, I understand, some blacks in his staff. I don't know that the governor has any. In other words, Wallace is a great, masterful politician. Wallace remains Wallace, and he is still the one who made, as his initial inaugural address . . . the most defiant promise ever made I suppose in the last 100 years . . . segregation now and forever. And then he threw the line in the dust. Those were harsh words he spoke there. He's changed and the people around him have changed. I'm sure he's changed somewhat. I'm sure his close brush with death has been a factor there. But you've got to remember basically where his strength is.
WALTER DE VRIES:
Where is it?
BERT NETTLES:
His strength lies with the man in the street, the blue collar voter, the rank and file voter who figures . . . these are the people who voted for Big Jim Fulsome. He jousted with the windmills of the establishment and with utilities and what not. And had some good things going. Huey Long, probably is the best example of George Wallace syndrome. I read this book by Harrison Williams, I believe, Huey Long, maybe three or four years ago. And it's excellent. I know George Wallace well. And from reading this book I would say you could put George Wallace and Huey Long right together on just about everything except the racial issue.
JACK BASS:
Except.
WALTER DE VRIES:
Yeah, except.
JACK BASS:
Except that Huey Long actually . . . you know, had these big confrontations with the corporations, the corporate interests, the special interests. He put taxes on them. He implemented programs. And he put the taxes on the special interests that had dominated Louisiana. And we've seen no evidence that George Wallace . . . .
WALTER DE VRIES:
He built hospitals and schools and all the things that his populist rhetoric said he was going to do.
BERT NETTLES:
Your point is well taken to a great degree. Certainly where the utilities come into play. Wallace makes a big public protest and yet doesn't really fight the utilities.
JACK BASS:
Didn't he put a little tax on them and then let them get it back with a rate increase?
BERT NETTLES:
Yes. And he . . . the pass through feature was added to the legislation and allowed that to be done. [unclear] Wallace has never been for a sales tax increase and yet the big pluses for education that have come about in the last 20 years, since I've been following the scene, have been based on sales tax increase.
JACK BASS:
But he's always given rhetoric against it but then he signs the bill when it passes. Right.
BERT NETTLES:
Yes. Now Wallace has done this, though. He has really been . . . done a great deal in the vocational school area and building up vocational training schools, the technical-
JACK BASS:
Didn't that really come out of the vocational education act for 196-
BERT NETTLES:
But he was the one who authored that act.
JACK BASS:
No, I mean the federal. Didn't a lot-
BERT NETTLES:
No, this came before then. It already . . . . Now a lot of the funds have come from the federal act. But he . . . when he was in the legislature . . . . It goes back that far. [Unclear.] Wallace is-
JACK BASS:
Of course Strom Thurmond likes to talk about starting trade schools in South Carolina.
BERT NETTLES:
Yes, but I think Wallace can claim it with more accuracy. What I'm saying is you cannot minimize the fact that he has done many things. I disagree with him. I probably voted against him more than most in the legislature. But he . . . education . . . there have been substantial pluses for education. Even if it was a sales tax, rather than a property tax. You see, we're locked into a very regressive tax structure here in Alabama by virtue of the constitution. 1901. You'll recall, I'm sure, we've had no new constitution written for this state since 1901. And that was a constitution where they came in and the black belt, the old bourbon aristocracy completely dominated that constitutional convention. And that's when the laws were written into, the sections were written into the constitution restricting the rights, right to vote, everything else. And also very restrictive on taxation. You cannot place any additional property . . . you cannot increase the property tax, city, county or state. Without a vote of the people. You cannot increase the income tax-city, county or state-without a vote of the people. The only taxes, then, that you're left that will pass, unless you've got a all out effort, Ruben Askew type effort, would . . . . And even then, in Alabama you've got a little different situation than Florida, where you have south and middle Florida with . . . more readily acceptable to placing a tax on themselves. You've got a situation over here where the only tax area left is sales tax, business taxes such as liquor and cigarette taxes. That type. The regressive type. And as a result our tax structure is heavily regressive. Yet we're locked into it. Until we get a new constitution. And Wallace has not pushed for a new constitution.
JACK BASS:
That's my point. And you compare him with Huey Long.
BERT NETTLES:
I'm talking about political savvy.