My wife paused before she left for work Monday morning to let me know that TV news was reporting the death of George Wallace.
I had gone to bed the night before thinking Wallace would once again recover from ailments related to his paralysis after an attempt on his life 26 years ago.
Indeed, his hospital in Montgomery, Ala., had upgraded his condition, but he died last Sunday night. I lay there on my back in bed and thought for a moment.
George Wallace had affected my life as a child growing up in Alabama, as a young college student who worked in the Birmingham hospital where he was brought after being shot in Maryland, and as a news reporter who covered his last two terms as governor.
I was surprised to hear myself whispering the words that years ago I don't think I could have forced myself to mouth: "May he rest in peace."
Three decades ago, peace was the last thing I wished for George Wallace. I believed that the vitriolic comments of Alabama's segregationist governor had helped motivate racists to maim and murder black people.
His kind of venomous rhetoric incited the Ku Klux Klansmen who killed four little girls in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. One of the victims went to my school. Her mother taught there. Her daddy was our milkman.
Only weeks before that tragedy, I had almost been run over by a pickup truck speeding through the streets of Birmingham with a cargo of little white boys who yelled "nigger" at me.
At the time, I didn't blame George Wallace for the charged atmosphere that led to such incidents. I was only 9 years old.
By the time I was 18, I knew what Wallace stood for. I had a summer job at the rehabilitation hospital where he was brought to recover from the 1972 assassination attempt. The hospital held a reception for employees to meet the governor, who had been shot in Laurel, Md. All I could do was look at Wallace. I walked away before my turn to shake his hand.
He was a pitiable sight, so vulnerable in his wheelchair. All I could think about was what his racism had wrought. And that he hadn't always been that way.
In 1958, Wallace was actually supported by the Alabama NAACP in his first bid to become governor. But the "moderate" candidate lost to John Patterson and vowed never again to be defeated because he was soft on segregation.
Transformations of political convenience are not uncommon in Alabama. In his early political career in the state, Hugo Black got Klan support, but he went on to become a champion of civil rights as a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Wallace so embraced racism that it obliterated any hint that he had played with black children as a boy growing up in the little southeast Alabama town of Clio.
Born in 1919, Wallace was one of four children in a farm family. While in high school, he won the 1936 state Golden Gloves bantamweight boxing championship. The next year, he enrolled at the University of Alabama and graduated with a law degree in 1942.
In 1943, he married a 16-year-old dime store clerk, Lurleen Burns, who was elected governor of Alabama in 1966 when Wallace couldn't get the legislature to amend the constitution to allow governors to serve consecutive terms.
After college, Wallace served a brief stint in the Air Force before receiving a medical discharge. He became an assistant attorney general and won a seat in the legislature in 1947. He became a crony of populist Gov. James "Big Jim" Folsom and was elected a circuit court judge in 1953. Then came the crushing defeat to Patterson.
Wallace, who had been appointed a trustee of all-black Tuskegee Institute by Folsom, promised not to be "out-niggered" again. He won the 1962 gubernatorial election with fiery speeches that greatly resembled the blowhard oratory that 100 years earlier had sparked creation of the Confederacy.
"I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny," said Wallace in his 1963 inauguration speech. "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
Months later, he was "standing in the schoolhouse door" in a contrived effort to make it appear that he would not back down to federal authorities to integrate the University of Alabama.
Five years after Wallace's "stand," I became the first black person ever enrolled in the university's summer journalism workshop for high school students. For two weeks, I lived in a dorm, ate in a cafeteria, walked across the campus that Wallace had wanted to keep all-white.
Years later, as a reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald and United Press International, I occasionally got to cover the man who didn't want blacks at the university. Had he been successful, I wouldn't have been there in 1968. I wouldn't have had the experience that made me choose journalism as a career.
Wallace's disheartening loss to a moderate Southerner, Jimmy Carter, in the 1976 Florida presidential primary began to move him in a different direction.
He made his first public apology to black people in 1979, $H showing up unexpectedly at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been pastor.
"I have learned what suffering means. In a way that was impossible, I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain, and I can only ask for forgiveness," he said.
Courting black voters
After a four-year hiatus from politics, Wallace again ran for governor in 1982. He campaigned vigorously for African-American votes, realizing the Voting Rights Act that beaten demonstrators fought for in Selma in 1965 had made the black electorate a powerful force in Alabama.
Many blacks held their noses in 1982 and voted for Wallace out of pragmatism. Teachers, in particular, were impressed with his promises to improve education spending. I never voted for Wallace. But, once elected, he did greatly increase the number of blacks appointed to state posts.
Wallace's final term was marked by a troubled marriage to a third and much younger wife, Lisa. (Lurleen died of cancer while serving as governor, and Wallace had divorced Big Jim's niece, Cornelia.) He was in constant pain that required medication, and his poor hearing had gotten worse.
Wallace became a recluse even before his term ended in 1987. Afterward, he spent most of his time reflecting on all that he had done for political glory.
There were more apologies. The feeble old man in a wheelchair showed up at the 1995 re-enactment of the Selma-to-Montgomery March. He remembered that state troopers under his orders had brutally beaten marchers in 1965.
Calling black people "my friends," Wallace said, "Those were different days, and we all in our own ways were different people. May your message be heard. May your lessons never be forgotten. May our history always be remembered."
bTC I know I will always remember George Wallace. I will remember that smile that always looked more like a sneer. I'll remember how his deafness always worsened when you asked him questions he didn't want to hear. I'll remember the weakness of his grip when I finally did shake his hand, in 1977, while covering an Alabama Education Association convention.
I will remember how his speeches and actions gave comfort to racists who spit on people and cursed people and killed people in a doomed effort to preserve a way of life that could no longer exist in a nation that claimed to provide liberty and justice for all.
Forgive Wallace? That's up to the Lord. All I can promise is that I'll never forget him.
Harold Jackson, a Sun editorial writer since 1995, grew up in Birmingham, Ala., during the civil rights era. He has also written and edited for United Press International, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Birmingham News, where in 1991 he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.
Pub Date: 9/20/98