THE AMERICAN CREED: THE BATTLE FOR A MAN’S SOUL
THE AMERICAN CREED: THE BATTLE FOR A MAN’S SOUL
Hunter P. Drake
University of South Florida, Saint Petersburg
Dr. Elisa Minoff
During the struggle for and against civil rights, fear and mistrust tainted American race relations. It might seem counter-intuitive to assume that the embattled groups held any common ground. However, the precepts of freedom, equality, and the unhindered pursuit of happiness were deeply planted in the American national consciousness and once taken root they would work to bind Americans in a type of collective national identity. Ultimately, even a staunch segregationist like Governor George Wallace could not resist the persuasive power of what social economist Gunnar Myrdal called the American Creed.
First, it is necessary to explore the nature of the force that Myrdal observed. The American Creed is a juggernaut idea, an idea that exerts a slow but steady force toward the evolution of a nationalized American identity. Myrdal described this force as a set of core beliefs that fostered homogeneity and stability in our nation’s collective valuations. Specifically he stated, “Americans of all national origins, classes, regions, creeds, and colors, have something in common: a social ethos, a political creed.” Myrdal quoted Ralph Bunche, with whom he collaborated on volume one of The American Dilemma to describe this collective national awareness, “Every man in the street, white, black, red or yellow, know that this is ‘the land of the free,’ the ‘land of opportunity,’ the ‘cradle of liberty,’ the ‘home of democracy,’ that the American flag symbolizes the ‘equality of all men’ and guarantees to us all ‘the protection of life, liberty and property,’ freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and racial tolerance.” The American Creed, as understood in this context has the effect of creating expectancy in the minds it inhabits. Myrdal further explored the mechanism of action exerted by the creed in volume two of The American Dilemma. This expectancy shares the optimism of hope for equality of citizens, but Myrdal does not minimize the struggle involved or the cost of such progress. He describes how American involvement in wars, from the Revolutionary War through World War I, resulted in reasonable advance toward the Negro actualization of the American Creed. However, the progress was not unidirectional. “After the advances on all three occasions there were reactions, but not as much ground was lost as had been won.” This slow but ever-advancing progress by the Negro was evidence of a changing but increasingly unifying national identity. While Negros were making progress toward equality, those consumed by prejudice were fraught with cognitive dissonance. “It is significant that today even the white man who defends discrimination frequently describes his motive as ‘prejudice’ and says that it is ‘irrational.’” This leads us to a discussion of the perspective of one of the most vilified men from the civil rights era, Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama.
Historically, Wallace is most remembered as one of the staunchest supporters of segregation. In his 1963 inaugural address, he proclaimed, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” However, he was not always known as the greatest enemy of the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1958 Alabama gubernatorial race, Wallace ran an issue-oriented campaign and had even been supported by the NAACP. His biggest competition, John Patterson, took support from the Ku Klux Klan. With the black vote disenfranchised and white segregationists in charge, the result of the election was not surprising. William Warren Rogers, historian and University of Alabama professor, recounted the race in the following way.
…Patterson made race the central issue of the campaign. In a time of racial polarization, he [Wallace] tried to
emphasize traditional economic issues and lost the initiative on race even though he proclaimed himself a
segregationist. The Klan, which endorsed Patterson, denounced Wallace as ”NAACP loving George Wallace.” Despite
the support of labor, blacks, Jewish organizations, Democratic loyalists, well-educated people, and eight of the eleven
large daily newspapers, Wallace lost to Patterson by a vote of 250,000 to 365,000. Wallace attributed his loss to being
“outsegged” and vowed that it would never happen again.
Prior to his gubernatorial political aspirations, as a circuit judge, Wallace showed an understanding and empathy for the American Creed. “…as a circuit judge Wallace had halted a purge of black voters and had sentenced a white man to death for murdering a black.” After the bitter loss of the 1958 election, it seemed that the American Creed may have taken a back seat to his ambitions, at least temporarily. Race baiting became an all too familiar tactic for Wallace. In the next election, Wallace would not be “outsegged” and won the governorship of Alabama.
Governor Wallace’s 1963 inaugural address was rife with evidence of the philosophical battle that raged inside him. He disguised segregationist propaganda as anti-communist sentiment, drawing on the specter of the Cold War to bolster his supporters, frequently referring to the anti-segregationist element as communist. “The true brotherhood of America, of respecting the separateness of others… and uniting in effort… has been so twisted and distorted from its original concept that there is small wonder that communism is winning the world.” He objected emphatically to desegregation, and vaguely referenced decisions like Brown v Board saying, “…each race, within its own framework has the freedom to teach… to instruct… to ask for and receive deserved help from others of separate racial stations… but if we amalgamate into the one unit as advocated by the communist philosophers… then the enrichment of our lives… the freedom for our development… is gone forever.” Further, he developed the idea of this “communism” as an international conspiracy against the white race. “…so the international racism of the liberals seek to persecute the international white minority to the whim of the international colored majority.” It is obvious that the American Creed had much work yet to do in the heart of the embattled Wallace.
The brunt of his anger in the address was not directed to Negroes, but to the federal government, describing it as “a government that encourages our fears and destroys our faith.” He accused the federal government of playing at being God “without faith in God… and without the wisdom of God.” He chastised President Kennedy for his intervention during the Ole Miss integration. “It is the spirit of power thirst that led that same President to launch a full offensive of twenty-five thousand troops against a university.” He may have been angry about being on the losing side of the battle for desegregation, but he directed his anger toward government, at least in his address. He made the antagonistic, reminiscently confederate warning that “…we warn those of any group, who would follow the false doctrine of amalgamation that we will not surrender our system of government.”
Even in this address, behind his divisive, segregationist tone, the idea of the American Creed seemed to have been working to change his heart, even if slowly. For instance, he did iterate common goals for the Negro and white races. “We want jobs and a good future for BOTH our races. We want to help the physical and mentally sick of BOTH our races…” He ended his vision of the future with perhaps the most telling statement,“…for we are all the handiwork of God.”
Jumping to the end of the career and life of Wallace, it appears that Myrdal might have been on to something. After wrestling with the ideas of justice, equality, and freedom for his entire career, his mea culpa to the American Creed came at the 30th anniversary of the March on Montgomery. He sat in his wheelchair, deaf, while an aide read his speech for him, his words of apology fell on a crowd of mixed opinions.
Those days were filled with passionate convictions and a magnified sense of purpose that imposed a feeling on us all that events of the day were bigger than any one individual. Much has transpired since those days. A great deal has been lost and a great deal has been gained, and here we are. My message to you today is, ‘Welcome to Montgomery.’ May your message be heard. May your lessons never be forgotten. May our history be always remembered.
There are those that have said that his apology was made merely to appease a God he feared that he would soon be meeting. I would like to stand with those that sang out in unity that day in Montgomery in solidarity, in forgiveness with Wallace. I believe in the way of Myrdal, that the American Creed is something we must all struggle to actualize in our lives. I believe that George Wallace is evidence that the American Creed can and will prevail.
 Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Vol. I. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1944. 3.
 Ibid. 4.
 Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Vol. II. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1962. 476.
 Ibid. 481-482.
 Wallace, George C. The Inaugural Address of Governor George C. Wallace, January 14, 1963, Montgomery, Alabama. Montgomery, Ala.: [publisher Not Identified], 1963. 2.
 Rogers, William Warren. 1994. Alabama. [Electronic resource]: the history of a Deep South state. 571.: Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, c1994. 1994. University of South Florida Libraries Catalog, EBSCOhost
 Wallace, George C. The Inaugural Address of Governor George C. Wallace, January 14, 1963, Montgomery, Alabama. Montgomery, Ala.: [publisher Not Identified], 1963. 9.
 Ibid. 6.
 Ibid. 4-5.
 Ibid. 5.
 Ibid. 9.
 Bragg, Rick. “30 Years Later, Wallace Apologizes to Marchers.” The Baltimore Sun, March 11, 1995. http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1995-03-11/news/1995070104_1_marchers-montgomery-wallace.