Time Capsule: Wallace Paralyzed in Assassination Attempt

Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, who had stunned the Democratic establishment by polling a whopping 42% of the vote in the crowded March 14 Florida primary and finishing a strong second in the Wisconsin and Pennsylvania primaries the following month, was shot and critically wounded by Arthur Bremer while campaigning in the Maryland primary on this day in 1972.

The attempt on Wallace’s life at the Laurel Shopping Center left the three-time presidential candidate paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life.

At the time of the shooting, the 52-year-old Wallace had accumulated more popular votes than any other Democratic candidate for president, including South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, the party’s eventual nominee.

Bremer had stalked President Richard M. Nixon in the weeks leading up to the assassination attempt on Wallace, traveling as far as Ottawa, Canada, where Nixon was scheduled to give a speech at Parliament Hill on April 14.  Unable to get close to Nixon, the troubled Milwaukeean — an unemployed janitor who had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic several months earlier — decided that it would be virtually impossible to assassinate Nixon and immediately set his sights on Wallace.

“I have to kill somebody,” Bremer confided in his diary.  “I am one sick assassin.”

Volunteering to work on Wallace’s campaign, Bremer — who had also been spotted at rally for former Vice President Hubert Humphrey on April 3 — traveled to Maryland to be close to the candidate’s campaign headquarters in Silver Spring.

Shortly after finishing his speech at the Laurel Shopping Center, Wallace — ignoring the advice of Secret Service agents — began to work the crowd estimated at more than 1,000 people.  In a matter of moments, Bremer, sporting dark sunglasses and a “Wallace in ’72” campaign button, stepped forward, pulled out a .38 revolver and opened fire on the Alabama governor, emptying his weapon before quickly being subdued.

Hit in the abdomen and chest with a bullet lodged in his spine, Wallace fell to the ground, gasping for air.  Hit four times at close range, it’s remarkable that he survived.  Three others were also wounded, including an Alabama state trooper who served as Wallace’s personal bodyguard, a female campaign volunteer and a U.S. Secret Service agent assigned to protect the governor.

Wallace, who had been leading in the polls prior to the shooting, rolled to an easy victory in Maryland the following day, garnering 219,687 votes to Humphrey’s 151,981 and McGovern’s 126,978.  He also won big in Michigan, nearly doubling McGovern’s second-place showing in that state.

But, for all intents and purposes, the assassination attempt ended Wallace’s dreams of capturing the Democratic nomination in 1972.  Poorly represented by surrogates in the half-dozen remaining primaries, the ailing Alabama governor could do no better than a couple of second-place finishes and a half-hearted write-in effort in California’s winner-take-all primary on June 6.  

Wallace received 381 and 7/10 votes at the Democratic national convention in Miami Beach later that summer, all but 54 having been earned prior to the May 15 shooting.

Bremer, who served thirty-five years of a 53-year sentence for the attempt on Wallace’s life, was released from prison in November 2007 and remains on probation until 2025.

Wallace, who died in 1998 at the age of 79, forgave his assailant eight years after the shooting.  Acknowledging that Bremer had “interrupted a lot my plans politically,” Wallace said that he was much happier since personally forgiving the man who had left him crippled for life.

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