On May 18, 1972, the News Leader ran this photo of Prince George's County police taking Arthur Bremer into custody moments after Bremer shot presidential candidate George Wallace, who was then governor of Alabama.
On May 18, 1972, the News Leader ran this photo of Prince George's County police taking Arthur Bremer into custody moments after Bremer shot presidential candidate George Wallace, who was then governor of Alabama. (AP file photo, Associated Press)


WARNING: Video contains graphic content

It was a quiet city back then, a place where a stage stood in a nondescript shopping center, a platform from which a controversial presidential candidate would speak.


It was a day when Laurel would become the city where a man with a gun tried to kill George Wallace.

Wallace, then a Democratic governor from Alabama whose views on race and segregation were becoming more out of place in 1972 America, had just finished his campaign speech on Monday, May 15, 1972, when he stepped toward the crowd and in range of Arthur Herman Bremer.

The 21-year-old, sandy-haired man from Milwaukee, Wisc., had a .38 caliber revolver that could hold five bullets. He fired five times.

And on that day 40 years ago, an infamous chapter of history was written in Laurel.

Campaigning on segregation

Wallace, who was 52 at the time, was an increasingly anachronistic voice in a changing U.S. political landscape when he arrived in a Maryland city that was far different than the Laurel of today.

Karen Yengich was 25 years old and a newly hired reporter for the News Leader, as the Laurel Leader was then called, who had moved from Utah to Maryland with her late husband. It was her first day on the job, and she had landed a prime assignment, covering Wallace's visit.

"Wallace was kind of a holdout in terms of the old segregationist feelings," said Yengich, now 65 and living in Salt Lake City. "There were divisions within the Democratic Party. I don't think everybody in Laurel, Maryland, or anywhere else was still a racist or segregationist, but certainly some people had those feelings, and some didn't and wanted things to change.

"I don't know why he picked Laurel as a campaign stop. Some felt there were stronger feelings for his political beliefs, but it wasn't predominant," she said. "I'd really say George Wallace was a fringe candidate in terms of today's terminology, but he did have a following. There were some people who did have those beliefs. Although, things had started to change the other way."

Wallace had run for president before, falling short in a third-party bid for the White House in 1968, finishing in third place behind Republican victor Richard Nixon and Democratic runner-up Hubert Humphrey. He did garner more than 13 percent of the popular vote, however, and 8.6 percent of the electoral vote, winning five states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.

He returned to the Democratic fold for the 1972 race, running for the right to challenge Nixon's bid for re-election. And when the primary election season came to Maryland in May of that year, the race for the nomination, unlike the primaries of today, was far from over. Wallace was gaining momentum, had won resoundingly earlier in the month in Tennessee and North Carolina, and joined Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern as the three top candidates.

"Everybody knew who George Wallace was," Yengich said. "He had a national reputation, even though he was from Alabama."

He had been a judge, a state representative and was now in his second term as a governor. As Alabama's chief executive a decade before, he had sought to stop the desegregation at schools in the state.

In the early 1960s, he had proclaimed: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."


Bremer spotted in the crowd

It was a sunny Monday afternoon. Musician Billy Grammer took to the stage with his band, entertaining the assembled crowd before Wallace spoke in the parking lot at Laurel Shopping Center.

James Collins was a young Vietnam veteran, a 22-year-old driving around Laurel for his job delivering auto parts when he passed by the shopping center.

"I could see somebody on the stage talking, and a group of people, then I noticed there were police officers on the rooftops," said Collins, now 62, who later went on to become the longtime spokesman for the Laurel Police Department and city government before retiring earlier this year.

"I walked over and realized who it was. I remember two African-American men, they were yelling at Wallace. I just walked up and stayed there for a moment. I had to leave and deliver the parts. I didn't get but a few miles down the road when I found out he was shot."

There were dozens of police officers there that day, and that didn't even include the Secret Service agents. Ten years after the shooting, Wallace told Yengich that the agents had told him to go directly from the stage to his car.

"I should have taken their advice," Wallace said, reflecting to the reporter. "I should not have gone into the crowd. It was a friendly crowd except for Arthur Bremer."

Bremer had followed Wallace on the campaign trail all the way from Wisconsin, targeting the candidate after first failing to follow through on a plot to assassinate President Nixon, according to PBS. Bremer had been spotted at another of the governor's campaign events earlier that day, this one in Wheaton.

Collins remembers seeing Bremer in the Laurel crowd.

"He was strange-looking," Collins said. "He was very clean, but he wore this straw campaign hat with 'Vote for Wallace' on it. I actually thought he was part of the presidential team to try to get Wallace elected, just by the way he was acting. He was standing off to the side to my left. I kept watching him. He was clapping and laughing, and then after the shooting, when I came back and realized that was the person who did it, it really shocked me."

Some described the gunshots as sounding like firecrackers. Others knew differently, though; while many in the crowd were screaming and running away, others, including police officers, Secret Service agents, reporters and heroic bystanders, were heading toward the chaos.

Wallace fell, wounded.

"His eyes were open, and he was breathing," Barbara Munson, a North Laurel resident, told the News Leader at the time. "It was like a reenactment of what happened at Dallas (withPresidentJohn F. Kennedy). How could it happen in Laurel?"

Wallace was wounded in his arm, chest and abdomen. Three others were shot and injured: an Alabama state trooper, a campaign worker and a Secret Service agent.

Bremer was arrested.

"I didn't ever see him," Yengich said. "He was snatched really quickly by police. We were trying to find out what happened to him."

'I've just never forgotten that day'

All who were shot survived, but Wallace was injured the worst, paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Wallace won both the Maryland and Michigan primary races the next day, victories some believe were fueled by sympathy. McGovern, however, would go on to win the Democratic nomination; Nixon won a second term in one of the most lopsided presidential elections ever.

Wallace went on to win one more term as governor of Alabama in the 1980s and died in 1998.

Bremer spent 35 years in prison in Hagerstown and was released in 2007, 18 years early, credited with time he had earned working as an educational aide in the facility. He'll remain on supervised release for another 13 years.


One longtime Laurel resident, Kay Harrison, said the incident put the city on the map.

"I couldn't tell you how many times in my travels that someone would say, 'Where are you from?' I'd say, 'Laurel, Md. You probably don't know where that is.' 'Oh, yeah, where Gov. Wallace was shot.'

"That's not a very good reputation," said Harrison, 67, who works for the city. "That's how people identified it."

Yengich, however, is among those who believe that while Laurel was known momentarily, it soon lost the tarnish of this infamous chapter.

"I think that Laurel got its 15 minutes of national fame that it didn't want, but once it was forgotten and superseded by bigger news, it went back to being what it was," she said.

That might be true for others, but not necessarily for those who were living in Laurel or who were there at the campaign stop back in 1972.

"I've just never forgotten that day," Yengich said. "It's just as vivid as it was 40 years ago."