George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, became a national political figure on his pledge to "stand in the schoolhouse door" to preserve "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
Wallace symbolically blocked black students from entering the University of Alabama in 1963, thus defying a federal court order.
Historians later concluded his gesture was aimed at proving to white Alabamans that he was not soft on integration despite a moderate earlier record on racial issues – that he, in his own words, would not be "outsegged" by anyone.
Jerry Brown is light-years removed from Wallace on racial issues; while Wallace was posturing in Alabama, Brown was spending his spring break from Yale Law School in Mississippi as a civil rights worker.
Nevertheless, Brown seems to be adopting Wallace's tactic as he spars with federal judges on another states' rights issue.
Federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have ordered Brown to reduce the prison population to end overcrowding. He and the Legislature enacted realignment two years ago to divert some low-level felons into local jails, thus reducing the inmate load by attrition.
It has had a dramatic effect, but the state remains nearly 10,000 inmates short of meeting the number decreed by the courts, and Brown is refusing, so far, to comply. He is petitioning the Supreme Court to revisit the issue, arguing that the state has gone far enough and releasing more felons would place Californians in peril of violent crime.
The subliminal message Brown is sending to Californians is similar to the one that Wallace was sending a half-century ago – that if he's compelled to do what the judges say he must do, then they, and not him, are to blame for the results. It's political insurance from the fallout from any crime committed by a felon he released.
This week, the state's four living former governors, Republicans George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrat Gray Davis, filed a "friend of the court" brief with the Supreme Court supporting Brown and warning of "grave and irreparable harm from increased crime" should inmates be freed.
But the brief, prepared by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, also subtly undercuts Brown's political position.
Brown has contended that realignment has not resulted in any serious uptick in crime, but the brief from the four ex-governors flatly declares, based on FBI crime reports, that serious and violent crime in the state's largest cities did spike upward in the first year after realignment, much more steeply than in the nation as a whole.
Brown is tiptoeing through a political minefield while dodging legal bullets fired by federal judges – just as Wallace did a half-century ago.