George C. Wallace and the Founding of Alabama's Public Two-Year Colleges

Article excerpt


In the State of Alabama, George Corley Wallace is widely recognized by both friends and foes as the father of the state's publicly controlled two-year colleges. By January of 1987, as his final term as Governor closed, these forty-one separately administered institutions, governed by a single board, served over sixty-two thousand students [29]. Wallace's prominent role is reflected in the very naming of the institutions -- two are named for him, one for his late wife Lurleen, and one for his late father, who served in the Alabama House of Representatives in the 1920s. In personal visits to all forty-one institutions, I noted at least thirty George C. Wallace buildings and ten Lurleen B. Wallace buildings or halls. In Fountain and Tollefson's compilation of the histories of forty-nine state community college systems published in 1989 by the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, the official history of Alabama's publicly controlled two-year colleges, authored by then-chancellor of the Alabama two-year colleges, Charles L. Payne, cited George Wallace as "the Father of Alabama's Two-Year Colleges" [27].

The literature of George C. Wallace's four presidential campaigns and his influence on the national political scene is considerable and largely critical and negative in tone [28, 33]. Mostly ignored, however, has been his performance as governor of Alabama, and in particular, his record in the area of education. Elected four times to serve four-year terms in 1962, 1970, 1974, and again in 1982, Wallace in 1966 audaciously ran his wife Lurleen as his stand-in, following his unsuccessful effort to convince the Alabama State Senate in the previous year to approve the Wallace-sponsored constitutional amendment to allow gubernatorial succession. "Governor Lurleen" captured 54 percent of the vote, easily defeating a field of ten prominent politicians, while none of the seventeen Alabama state senators who opposed changing the state constitution to allow succession were re-elected [29]. George C. Wallace thus held the reins of power in Alabama during eighteen of the twenty-four years between 1963 and 1987. This represents one of the longest tenures in office of any state chief executive this century. Wallace's education program had as its cornerstone his junior college and trade school program; within the state it is widely recognized as his most important contribution to education during his tenure. In what ways did the founding of public two-year colleges in Alabama reflect George Wallace's pragmatic, populist politics and his desire to continue governing Alabama? The answer, described in detail below, is a "great deal."

The title "Father of Alabama's Two-Year Colleges" was certainly well deserved. This article tells the story of the creation of these institutions during the first term of the four Wallace administrations, with special focus on the ten tumultuous months of Wallace's initial administration in 1963, which in addition to his well-known stand in the door at the University of Alabama, saw him inherit a fiscal mess, pass a major highway program, pass major new taxes for education, and pass legislation that allowed creation of a network of two-year colleges by breaking a 107-hour filibuster in the Alabama State Senate [16]. As Wallace fought and eventually broke the opposition to what had been the longest filibuster in state history, he sowed the seeds that would allow him to expand the two- year college program far beyond what the legislature had originally contemplated. The program state legislators thought they were approving ostensibly created five new junior colleges and five new trade schools. By the end of 1964, however, the program had expanded to eleven junior colleges and twenty-four trade schools (which were elevated to technical college status in the 1980s), and by 1987, there were forty-one publicly controlled two-year colleges under the direct governance of the Alabama State Board of Education (ASBE) [29]. …