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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Requiem for an Arsonist

George Corley Wallace: 1919-1998

By Lance Morrow

Time cover

(TIME, September 28) -- The subject for today's meditation is the mystery of forgiveness. Our text is not the current constitutional soap opera but rather an item from the past, the case of George Corley Wallace.

Return to September 1982, the height of Wallace's last campaign for Governor of Alabama. At Wallace headquarters on the edge of Montgomery, in a grandiose former furniture store with a pseudo-Tara facade, sits a shy, sweet-tempered black schoolteacher from out in Lowndes County--"bloody Lowndes," as they called it in the days when the Klan was loose on the back roads after dark, the days when George Wallace, strutty, sneering, defiant, went national and roostered around "Love-It-or-Leave-It" America, stirring up race hate.

The teacher, Mrs. Carter, phones black voters around the county, demurely urging them to vote for Wallace--asking in genteel, church-social tones. The listeners hear her out; she thanks them. I ask her (though in polite terms), "What in the hell are you doing here, working for George Wallace?" Her countenance has the nimbus of forgiveness in it. She speaks of free textbooks and junior colleges, Wallace's populist labors for the little people. Race? Oh, that. "He has made some mistakes. But haven't we all?"

Amazing grace, surely--but which of them was it exactly, Mrs. Carter or Governor Wallace, who had been blind and now could see?

Toward the end of the '70s, in constant pain from Arthur Bremer's bullet, which lodged near his spine and put him in a wheelchair, Wallace had mellowed. He wheeled himself before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Birmingham, Ala., apologized to the assembled black elders and begged forgiveness. They seemed to grant it.

Was it a real transformation? Some change in perspective wrought by wheelchair and pain--and, who knows, painkillers? Or a gesture of expediency--the knowledge that blacks were voting now, and as America had changed, Wallace must change? In any case, George Wallace, who last week died at 79 in Montgomery, had a lot to be sorry for.

Once upon a time, when he was young, Wallace was a racial moderate, a protege of the populist Governor Jim Folsom. But Wallace, a child of Depression-smitten rural southeast Alabama and a Golden Gloves bantamweight champion in high school, burned with pugnacious ambition, a flame as pure as rage. Just as an earlier demagogue, Wisconsin's Senator Joe McCarthy, had found his pay-dirt issue in domestic communist subversion, so Wallace discovered the political energy and firepower of race.

After a fiercer seg, John Patterson, beat him with Klan backing for the governorship in 1958, Wallace decided he would never be "out-niggered" again. At his inauguration as Governor in January 1963, he stood at the spot where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as President of the Confederacy; Wallace's pouty glare vectored diagonally across the way at the young Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the headquarters of all that "nigra" agitation. Wallace's inaugural speech, mostly written by a Klansman, Asa Carter, promised to protect Alabama's "Anglo-Saxon people" and ended with what became his signature line: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" A few months later, he stood in the schoolhouse door to block two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. The Justice Department overrode him with bayonets.

So Wallace fired himself into a larger orbit, kindling a Confederate defiance in ethnic and blue-collar Middle America. The later Wallace--chastened and penitent--claimed that the uprising was not about race or hate but rather about states' rights and the forgotten middle class. That was partly true; it was also a Vietnam-era class war against draft-dodging, policymaking elites. Wallace pioneered the fed-up anti-Washington line that other politicians, from Nixon to Carter to Reagan, took up and carried into the respectable mainstream. Wallace in a sense expanded American democracy rightward.

But he surely expanded it hateward as well. Wallace was one of the great political arsonists; no material in America was more flammable than race. He took his magnificent sneer and slurring menace up North to Rust Belt, hard-hat territory and, as if in a century-delayed retaliation for Sherman's march, he scorched the earth with a message of racial contempt and populist economic grievance. In the 1968 election, he took 13% of the popular vote and won five states.

It was in the 1972 campaign, in Maryland, that Bremer, one of America's lethal, boardinghouse nonentities, gunned him down. Wallace campaigned again, in 1976, but as a ghost of himself.

I have thought now and then about the black Alabama schoolteacher's forgiveness of Wallace. Was she merely gullible, I've wondered, or was something deeper at work? The truth of forgiveness is that its benefits--a healing sweetness--may accrue more to the forgiver than to the forgiven. If blacks could bring themselves to forgive George Wallace, pain-racked in his wheelchair, then was there not, in the forgiveness, a small but real moment of liberation all around?


Cover Date: September 28, 1998

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