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Wallace era long gone, but not discrimination

The Baltimore Sun

The man who tried to assassinate George C. Wallace will soon be free after spending 35 years in a Maryland prison.

Arthur Bremer could be released before December because of time earned for good behavior. The recent announcement ignited a flood of memories for me.

Mr. Wallace was shot in Laurel while running for president in 1972. About three months later, the racist governor of Alabama was brought to a Birmingham hospital where I had a summer job. Spain Rehabilitation Center was known nationally for its work with spinal-cord-injury victims. Mr. Bremer's bullets had left Mr. Wallace paralyzed and forced him to abandon his presidential campaign.

I had one of those make-work summer jobs for college students and had been assigned to the audiology/speech pathology lab run by Dr. Samuel Fletcher.

Mr. Wallace was at Spain a week or so, I think. Every employee had to get new photo security cards before his arrival. But few of us were allowed into the same area when he was receiving physical therapy. One day, it was announced that a reception would be held so every Spain employee could meet the governor. I immediately became concerned.

Mr. Wallace and the word despicable were synonymous to me. I blamed him for the venomous environment that sparked the Ku Klux Klan bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. Four little girls were killed in the blast. One went to my school. Her mother taught there. Her father was my family's milkman.

By the summer of 1972, I was totally into black power. My mind had been Afrocentrically shaped while in the Upward Bound program for high school students at black Miles College. Later, I became a leader in the black student union at mostly white Baker University in Kansas.

Meet George Wallace? I don't think so.

But the situation was delicate. I didn't want to offend Dr. Fletcher or my other co-workers. So, when the time came, I dutifully joined the reception line. Other African-American employees did the same. I kept thinking and thinking: What should I do? I was about a dozen people away from being the next person to shake the governor's hand when I finally just walked away.

Years later, as a reporter, I covered Mr. Wallace and even shook his hand at least once. It was the professional thing to do.

Before Mr. Wallace died in 1998, he confessed his sin as a racist and asked for forgiveness. Many black people forgave him. Many voted for him when he ran for re-election after being shot.

I never did, even though I do believe he changed. The South has greatly changed, too, from those days when it took a federal order to get Mr. Wallace to stand aside so the University of Alabama could be integrated.

But even today, vestiges of those racist times remain. Events occur in Dixie and elsewhere that make you question how much progress has been made. Consider the case of the Jena 6. They are six black high school students in a small Louisiana town. In December, they were charged with attempted murder for allegedly beating up a white student who suffered only minor injuries in a fight.

Contrast the attempted-murder charges with the simple battery charge lodged around the same time against a white student identified as the leader of a gang that had assaulted a black student who was punched and beaten with beer bottles.

Both incidents blossomed from racial arguments that began after a handful of black students congregated under a tree at Jena High School supposedly reserved for white students. Three nooses later were hung from the whites-only tree. Verbal sparring in and outside school eventually led to the fights and criminal charges.

The blatant inequity of the attempted-murder charges leveled at the black students has been denounced by various civil rights groups. No matter what ultimately happens in court, the defendants' lives will never be the same. They will forever feel like victims of a two-tiered system of justice.

It's hard to believe that 35 years after I couldn't make myself shake George Wallace's hand, there are still places in America where people can't even stand under a tree without being threatened because of their skin color.

My children are grown. When they were little, I prayed the world would be much changed by the time they became adults. It has changed, but not enough. Discrimination lives. There are hearts and minds yet to be conquered.

Harold Jackson, a former member of The Sun's editorial board, is deputy editorial page editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, where this article originally appeared. His e-mail is hjackson@phillynews.com.

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