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Think the Ghost of George Wallace Is Long Gone? Think Again

Revisiting Paul Stekler's 'Settin' the Woods on Fire'

By Kimberley Jones, 2:23PM, Sun. Oct. 7, 2012

Think the Ghost of George Wallace Is Long Gone? Think Again

In an op-ed published in today's Statesman, filmmaker and University of Texas professor Paul Stekler explains the influence of Alabama segregationist Gov. George Wallace on our current political landscape.

Stekler writes:

"Forty four years ago, a third-party candidate running on what many believed to be a radical platform opposed to racial integration was running second in the national polls, threatening to deadlock the electoral college and to throw the selection of a president to the House of Representatives. The candidate was Gov. George Wallace of Alabama. He’s largely forgotten, but Wallace was both an early practitioner of the polarized politics that dominate our nation today and was the creator of the one-party, racially divided politics that define much of the American South."

He continues:

"His legacy was to accelerate the process of Southern whites moving from the Democratic to the Republican party. ... Today, there is a solid South and it’s Republican. ...

As the Hispanic vote, largely Democratic, grows in Texas, we’ll likely see the re-emergence of statewide two party competition in the future. But until that time comes, the legacy and politics of George Wallace lives."

Stekler has had ample time to consider Wallace's place in American history: He spent years working on his award-winning 2000 documentary, George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire (co-directed with Daniel McCabe), which charted the politician's shift from progressive roots to the historic moment he attempted to block the entrance of two incoming African-American students to the University of Alabama and the 1972 assassination attempt that left him paralyzed from the waist down. In later years, he apologized for his segregationist crusade.

"This should be a film people are surprised about," Stekler told the Chronicle in March of 2000. "Because what do they know about Wallace? – that he was a segregationist, and they know that later in his life he asked for forgiveness. Okay, well this film is about more than that."

Asked why he felt it important to burrow into the head of Wallace, Stekler said, "I despise his politics, and in many ways I despise the guy, but if you want to understand politics you have to understand what appeals to people."

The Austin Film Society will screen George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 7pm, at the Stateside at the Paramount. Directors Paul Stekler and Daniel McCabe will conduct a Q&A with Wallace biographer Dan Carter after the screening. Ticket info can be found here.

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