De Graffenreid surprised many in ’62

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 30, 2014

If race was a major issue in 1958, being the racist candidate was the only way to be elected governor of Alabama in 1962. With this issue in hand and his love for campaigning and remembering names, George Wallace would have beaten anybody that year.

Leading up to the governor’s race in 1962, while Wallace had been campaigning 12-16 hours a day, seven days a week for four years, Big Jim sat home.

A secondary story developed during the campaign. Ryan De Graffenreid was a smart, handsome, articulate, Tuscaloosa state senator and lawyer. His family had been a prominent Tuscaloosa political family for generations, but young De Graffenreid truly had the makings of an Alabama governor. However, when he entered the 1962 governor’s race, the pundits wrote him off as an also ran. They said it was a Folsom versus Wallace race, but De Graffenreid had charisma and captivated all the silk stocking voters who would be Republicans today. He was quietly moving up in popularity leading up to the May Democratic Primary.

The night before the election, De Graffenreid, Wallace, and Folsom each had 30-minute television shows. Wallace appeared first and did all right, but he was used to the stump and country campaigning. The new medium of television felt uncomfortable to him, but he did not hurt himself.

De Graffenreid came on next and he was a sensation. He took to the camera like a duck to water. He was the new kind of candidate. He had John Kennedy-like appeal and he mastered the new medium of television.

Then Big Jim came on, obviously inebriated, and sunk himself, although it was a very colorful show.

Wallace won, but the surprise of the election was that Big Jim finished third. De Graffenreid came in second and would face Wallace in the runoff. Wallace was elected governor, but De Graffenreid had run a brilliant get-acquainted race. A star had been born.

The 1966 governor’s race had two stories: the Ryan De Graffenreid story and the Lurleen Wallace story. De Graffenreid had become the man to beat in 1966. He took a page from the George Wallace playbook and copied Wallace’s work habits from four years earlier. He worked as hard as Wallace, but was even more organized. Old timers say he had a precinct and box captain lined up in every box and hamlet in Alabama. It was an unbelievable organization for that era.

During the summer of 1965, one of the most titanic sessions in state senate history occurred. Wallace called a special session to get the legislature to change the Constitution and allow him to succeed himself. It was called the Succession Session. It passed the House easily, but some strong-willed state senators withstood the most powerful pressure ever put on legislators. They refused to buckle in to the brazen and strong-armed Wallace power play. Wallace could not get the majority he needed in the Senate. Many of those senators were committed to De Graffenreid. They had served with him and were loyal to him. It cost many of them their political careers. Wallace went after them with a vengeance.

With Wallace out of the race De Graffenreid appeared invincible. He campaigned tirelessly even though he had only token opposition. It was a cold windy night in February of 1966 and he was to make a speech up around Sand Mountain. He had a campaign plane and he and his pilot were advised not to try to make the flight to the event. De Graffenreid refused to stop. He boarded his plane at Ft. Payne and within minutes after takeoff, he and his pilot crashed into a mountain and died. De Graffenreid would have been governor. The state was in shock. The governor’s race was wide open with less than three months before the primary, which was tantamount to the election.

We will continue next week with the rest of the story of the 1966 governor’s race, the Lurleen Wallace story.