If there’s one blemish on Arkansas’ history during the 20th century that gets overlooked, it’s probably the election of 1968.
Fifty years ago, Arkansas was one of five states to vote for American Independent Party candidate George Wallace for president of the United States.
Yes, that George Wallace, the man made infamous by the following lines:
“Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. 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 today … segregation tomorrow … segregation forever.”
Wallace delivered that speech from the portico of the Alabama State Capitol, the exact place where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as the president of the Confederate States of America.
It’s rather difficult to resolve “freedom” and “segregation” as going hand in hand. But, for Wallace, that was his rallying cry.
And 235,627, or 36.65 percent, of Arkansas voters agreed that year. Fifty of Arkansas counties voted for Wallace, including Independence County’s neighbors Izard, Sharp, White, Cleburne and Jackson counties would be among them.
Independence County, on the other hand, went for Richard Nixon that year, as did 31 percent of Arkansas’ population.
That year, Arkansas joined Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia and Wallace’s home state of Alabama in giving him 46 electoral votes, making the American Independent Party the third most successful third-party in American history in regards to electoral votes.
The only ones to surpass it were the Constitutional Democratic Party led by John C. Breckenridge in 1860, with 72 electoral votes, and the Progressive Party led by Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, with 88 electoral votes.
Despite that, Wallace would finish third in the U.S. election behind winner Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey. This would mark the last time that a candidate running on a segregationist/white supremacist platform would win any electoral votes.
Wallace was the end of a trend that started in 1948 with Strom Thurmond ran on the States Rights Democratic Party (aka Dixiecrats) ticket. Similar to Wallace, the Dixiecrats were breakaway faction of the Democratic Party determined to protect states’ rights to legislate racial segregation from what its members regarded as an oppressive federal government. They’d carry 39 electoral votes that year, a year that Arkansas voted for incumbent President Harry S. Truman.
In 1958, an Alabama faithless elector voted for Judge Walter B. Jones, who presided over the New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan case who began the proceedings by lecturing against “racial agitators” and in praise of “white man’s justice.”
In 1960, Sen. Harry F. Byrd, with former Dixiecrat nominee Strom Thurmond as his vice presidential candidate, won eight electoral votes from unpledged electors who refused to vote for either Democrat John F. Kennedy or Republican Richard Nixon, despite Byrd not even being on the ballot. Unpledged electors are nominated to stand as an elector but who has not pledged to support any particular presidential or vice presidential candidate, and are free to vote for any candidate when elected a member of the Electoral College. The only time they have been elected was in the 1960 election.
It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that this entire period from Thurmond’s run in 1948 to Wallace’s run in 1968 coincided with the civil rights movement, which saw a great deal of resistance from swaths of the country averse to such changes.
It’s also something I don’t see talked about often. We didn’t go over the nuances of the electoral college when I was in school, instead touching on the high points, such as Truman’s defeat of Dewey or Kennedy’s defeat of Nixon. We don’t hear much about Wallace aside from his opportunistic and divisive speech, nor do we hear much about how the electors could potentially throw an election if the electoral score were close.
Can we learn anything by looking back at this?
Well, one thing is how much Arkansas, and the South, has changed. It’s doubtful, at least I hope, that a candidate running on a segregationist ticket could win again.
The other thing is, obviously, that faithless electors have the potential to throw an election if it’s close. In 2016, five faithless electors voted for candidates other than the ones than they were committed to. Winners of those faithless electoral votes were Colin Powell, Ron Paul and Faith Spotted Eagle.
Many states have seen the potential for this and have sought to rectify it by making laws and imposing criminal penalties if an elector does not vote how their voters choose.
Twenty-one states don’t have laws binding electors to vote for their pledged candidates. Arkansas is one of them.