In his first attempt at the governor’s seat in 1958, Wallace ran as a moderate. He blasted his opponent, eventual victor John Patterson, for “rolling with the new wave of the Klan,” and even won the endorsement of the NAACP. Defeated, Wallace determined to use racial prejudice as a political tool. As a district judge in Barbour and Bullock Counties, Wallace refused to hand over voting records to the federal Civil Rights Commission, stopping, in the eyes of his supporters, “a second Sherman’s March to the Sea.” Wallace’s publicity merged seamlessly into his 1962 campaign, and the “Fighting Judge” focused on his willingness to preserve statewide segregation and prevent federal enforcement of civil rights legislation. The decision to use reaction to civil rights to win support was carefully calculated—as Wallace told one reporter, “I started off talking about schools and highways and prisons and taxes—and I couldn’t make them listen…. Then I began talking about niggers—and they stomped the floor.”
For the month of May, Wallace and DeGraffenried crossed the state. Wallace drew on public fears of integration, particularly in the wake of events at the University of Georgia. Citing his history of defiance, Wallace promised to reject even a “little” integration, a swipe at Georgia’s acquiescence to the integration of the university, and promised to follow the example of Mississippi and reject any compromise. He also attacked civil rights organizations, telling crowds that “[the] NAACP knows how I stand…and I’ll tell you again that the NAACP is against George Wallace for governor.” Wallace won the support of committed segregationists, including Bull Connor, who called the candidate the only politician able to combat “those get-rich-quick so-called Negro preachers, Martin Luther King and [Fred] Shuttlesworth.” The Anniston Star praised Wallace’s “efforts to protect the Anglo-Saxon civilization.”
DeGraffenried struggled to rebut the fiery rhetoric. He also defended segregation, but he argued that Wallace’s public baiting of the federal government would only serve to increase national attention on the state. He promised to preserve the state’s laws, but not “invite trouble with loud talk about it.” He reassured voters, “I believe in [segregation] as strong as a man can believe in anything,” but counseled “good sound laws” instead of keeping the state “on the front page of the newspapers and television cameras of the country.” The Huntsville Times supported the more moderate DeGraffenried: “Alabama must present a better image to the nation if we are to gain needed new industry, attract higher skilled and qualifi ed men from other states and keep within our borders those we develop here.”
On May 29, 1962, Alabama voters chose Wallace. In South Alabama and the Black Belt, the segregationist won big majorities, while DeGraffenried took the urban counties of Jefferson and Madison. The election demonstrated a growing split between counties moving towards moderation and those seeking a staunch defense of racial segregation. In his victory, Wallace looked to southern “tradition.” In a political ad that ran in the Montgomery Advertiser days before the election, his supporters promised that he would “[stand] on the hallowed spot where Jefferson Davis stood” and “a better and brighter day will dawn for all of us and for our state.” Within months of his election in the fall of 1962, Wallace demonstrated that his “better day” came at the expense of basic political and social equality for all Alabamians.