By KENNETH BRIDGES | For The Arkadelphian
It was one of the most unusual elections in Arkansas History with some of the most outspoken and controversial candidates. It was the 1968 election, featuring Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, former Vice-President Richard Nixon, and outspoken segregationist George Wallace.
The American Independent Party was a third party formed in late 1967 as a protest to the civil rights policies and more liberal programs of the national Democratic Party. The effort was spearheaded by then-Gov. George Wallace of Alabama. In Arkansas, the victory of the American Independent Party became the only time a third-party candidate won a statewide contest.
Wallace had long since established a reputation for fighting civil rights initiatives, including a widely publicized effort to block desegregation of the University of Alabama in 1963 by standing in the doorway to prevent two African-American students from enrolling. He entered the Democratic Primary for the presidency in 1964, and his performance in several states had surprised observers, but he ultimately lost by a convincing margin to President Lyndon Johnson.
Privately, Wallace planned to run again in 1968 but initially faced the prospect of challenging an incumbent president in the Democratic Primary. Because of Alabama’s term limits law at the time, governors could not serve consecutive terms in office. Wallace’s wife Lurleen had been elected governor of Alabama as a stand-in candidate for Wallace in 1966 in order to keep him in the national spotlight.
The American Independent Party was formed in the fall of 1967 to support a Wallace run for the presidency, encouraged by a number of state officials and residents upset with President Johnson’s Great Society programs, support for civil rights, and the increasing unrest in the nation, specifically race riots in the nation’s major cities. Former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice “Justice Jim” Johnson of Crossett, who had lost the election for governor in 1966, was among the most well-known supporters for Wallace. Johnson would coordinate Wallace’s efforts in the state throughout the campaign.
To qualify a third party for the ballot in 1968, Arkansas law required petition signatures equal to at least 15% of the total votes in the previous general election, which meant a total of at least 86,000. Across the South, similar efforts were made to organize the party as a vehicle for Wallace, which supporters called “Operation Dixie.”
Party leaders preferred to keep their focus on Wallace and discouraged attempts by candidates to run for any offices under the American Independent banner throughout spring 1968. A state-level convention for the new party was held on April 20 in Little Rock. Delegates passed resolutions supporting states rights, support of police actions against rioters, and continued support of the Vietnam War. The highlight of the convention was a speech by Wallace open to the public. Fire marshals estimated that 7,500 people attended the speech.
On April 22, party leaders announced that they had collected 125,000 Wallace petitions for the American Independent Party, far beyond the number required, and paid the required filing fees with the state Secretary of State. Initially, former Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin, an avowed segregationist, was named as Wallace’s vice-presidential nominee in the state. Wallace faced personal setbacks during his run. His wife died from cancer in May at age 41, but Wallace, now a widowed father of four, continued with his presidential campaign.
Ultimately, he won ballot access across the country with controversial retired Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay as his vice-presidential running mate. LeMay had become increasingly outspoken in his support of hardline stances against the Soviet Union and communism. He sparked controversy when he said, “The problem with the American people is that they are afraid of nuclear war.”
The Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette both published editorials critical of Wallace and his supporters. His supporters included a collection of business owners, farmers, ranchers, and supporters of the White Citizens Councils. A number of smaller newspapers and local officials voiced their support for Wallace in the state as well as former Gov. Orval Faubus. Supporters ran with the slogans “Wallace Has It! Do You?” and “Stand Up For America.”
On election night in November, Wallace captured the state’s six electoral votes decisively. He won 235,627 votes, or 38.65% of the total to Republican nominee Richard Nixon’s 31.01% and Democratic nominee Hubert H. Humphrey’s 30.33%. Of the state’s 75 counties, Wallace won 50, mostly in the central, eastern, and southern areas of Arkansas, mostly rural counties. Nationally, Wallace would win only four other southern states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia — for a distant third-place finish with 9.9 million votes, while Nixon won the election.
In what some writers called the “split-personality election” of 1968, not only did Wallace win the presidential vote in the state on his American Independent Party ticket, Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller won re-election, and Democratic U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright won re-election. All three parties split the major elections in the state, an electoral feat never matched in the state’s history. This was also the first time since 1872 that a Democrat had not won the presidential contest in Arkansas, a streak that had been unmatched even in any other reliably Democratic state across the “Solid South.”
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