On this day in 1972: Segregationist George Wallace wins Mich. Democratic presidential primary 

By: - May 16, 2022 3:56 am

George Wallace in 1972 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University photo

Former Alabama Gov. George Wallace — who once declared, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” — won the Michigan Democratic Presidential Primary on May 16, 1972, with ease.  

He outpaced former Vice President Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, U.S. Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota and U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York City, the first African American woman to wage a presidential bid. 

Wallace captured 51% of the vote; McGovern had 27%; Humphrey took 16% and Chisholm secured 3%. The Alabama governor won 79 of Michigan 83 counties, including Allegan, Macomb, Mackinac, Monroe, Wayne and Oakland. However, McGovern beat Wallace in Ingham County, where the Michigan State University is located, and Washtenaw County, where Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan are located. 

While campaigning in Laurel, Md., on May 15, 1972, Wallace was shot five times by 21-year-old Arthur Bremer, former busboy and janitor from Milwaukee, who had attended Wallace campaign rallies in Lansing and Cadillac in recent days. The wound would leave Wallace paralyzed from the waist down. The Alabama governor also won Maryland’s primary on May 16. 

Rep. Sandy Levin, 2016 | Susan J. Demas

Sander Levin, the 1970 and 1974 Michigan Democratic Party gubernatorial nominee who had once served as state party chair, told the Advance on May 5 that Wallace’s win was “deeply troubling.” Levin, who had backed presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) until his candidacy ended in late April, later became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Several labor unions, traditional Democratic party allies, organized to thwart Wallace’s Michigan effort. Gov. William Milliken, a moderate Republican, lamented the Alabama governor’s Michigan win. 

“I do not approve of Mr. Wallace’s approach, his politics, his position on many, many issues,” according to Detroit Free Press reporting on May 17, 1972.

Doug Fraser, the United Auto Worker political head, was concerned about Wallace’s appeal to American voters. 

“It seems to me that in the politics of November, both political parties and politicians of both parties and other establishment people, had better take a hard look at what happened in Michigan Tuesday,” he told the Detroit Free Press at the time. 

How did Wallace beat more conventional Dems? 

Wallace defied John F. Kennedy administration directives in 1963 and fought to keep African Americans from attending the University of Alabama Several months earlier, he declared during his gubernatorial inauguration speech that year. 

“It is very appropriate that from this cradle of the confederacy, this very heart of the great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us time and again down through history,” Wallace stated. “Let us rise to the call for 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 now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Wallace ran as an independent presidential candidate in 1968. During a campaign political rally at Detroit’s Cobo Arena, supporters of Wallace and hecklers physically fought each other. City police charged and clubbed some demonstrators outside of the building. 

“The free-for-all broke out near the end of Wallace’s speech,” according to Detroit Free Press reporting on Oct. 30, 1968. “It subsided as Wallace finished talking and the band struck up ‘Dixie.’” 

Ultimately, Humphrey, the eventual Democratic Party nominee, defeated GOP nominee former Vice President Richard Nixon in Michigan by 6 percentage points and won the state’s 21 electoral votes in 1968. But Nixon won the presidency.

By the 1972 election, cross-district busing to achieve equality between Blacks, whites and Browns, the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit rebellion, the Equal Rights Amendment and Vietnam War protests angered some white voters. Nixon was running for reelection.

Attorney Mark Brewer | Nick Manes

Mark Brewer was a junior at Mount Clemens High School in Macomb County in 1972. The future Michigan Democratic Party chair who served from 1995 and 2013, believes that Democrats and Republicans who had the motivation to crossover and vote for Wallace helped the Alabama governor win the ‘72 Michigan Democratic primary. 

Wallace campaigned in Michigan for five days as the primary election approached, continuing delivering his anti-busing position. He attracted 3,000 people during a rally at Halmich Park in Warren and 2,000 people at a Michigan Jaycees State Convention meeting in Lansing on the Saturday before the May 16 primary. 

“Nixon was going to be the nominee, so there was nothing going on the Republican side,” said Brewer. “And on our side was this very competitive race. It was a mix. I don’t blame Republicans entirely at all. [Wallace] had appeal to Democratic voters. Some Democratic voters voted for him.”  

Horace Sheffield III was a graduating senior at Detroit Cass Technical High School. The son of a union leader who had led efforts to register voters in the South during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Sheffield was not shocked by the 1972 election results. 

“During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it would not have been popular for some people to express their opinions, so this was a backlash,” said Sheffield.  

In 1972, Laura Carter Callow was a founder member of the Northwest Wayne Chapter of the National Organization for Women. Her Southeast Michigan organization had been fighting for Congress to pass the ERA.  

She told the Advance this month that Wallace’s Michigan win was centered on Republicans voting to hurt the state Democratic Party. 

Laura Carter Callow | Ken Coleman photo

“There was a deliberate crossover to make Democrats look bad,” said Callow. 

Slightly more than 3,000 delegates participated in the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Fla. McGovern secured 1,729 and was the party’s nominee. 

Wallace, partially paralyzed from the Maryland shooting, spoke at the Democratic National Convention from his wheelchair on July 11, 1972. He predicted that the Democrats would lose the general election unless they backed his call for a constitutional amendment to ban busing. He said voters are “against the senseless, asinine busing of little schoolchildren,” according to Associated Press reporting. 

Wallace died on Sept. 13, 1998, at age 79. 

Nixon went on to defeat McGovern in a huge landslide in the general election in November. 

Brewer told the Advance that the 1972 Wallace run did have an impact on how the Michigan Democratic Party carried out future nominating processes. In some contests, the MDP has held a caucus so as to better keep out Republican and independent voters. 

“It makes raiding a lot harder,” said Brewer.


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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit.