George Wallace is dead and like many Americans, I am saddened by his departure. George Corley Wallace touched the lives of nearly every American. Governor Wallace touched my life in a rather profound way: he was family. I grew up in Bullock County, Alabama. Our oral family history recognized that George Wallace’s family in nearby Barbour County and our family shared common ancestry. When I was growing up in Smuteye, I never met my Cousin George; the racial barrier was too high. During my youth, George Wallace used all his political gifts to strengthen the barrier existing between the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slave owners.
George Wallace’s earlier administrations can be described with the immortal words from Charles Dickens’ novel, Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” depending upon which side of the race barrier you were on ideologically and physically.
The first time I actually saw Cousin George was in the fall of 1968 at a campaign stop in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was campaigning for President. I was home from the war in Vietnam and watched as he addressed a crowd of supporters from a flatbed trailer being pulled slowly through downtown Cincinnati. I was standing in the crowd near Fountain Square, hoping to get a look at him as the entourage moved along Walnut Street.
Wallace stood near the rear of the trailer, microphone in hand, spouting campaign rhetoric. To make an oratorical point, he directed the crowds’ attention to a group of construction workers nearby. Pointing to a nonwhite member of the work crew, he said, “Look at him, standing there while those white men are working.” The crowd turned and looked in the direction of the construction crew. I remember just standing, wounded, among the crowd of supporters as the trailer moved on with loudspeakers blasting.
A decade later in July 1978, I was in Rhodesia. At the time that country was at war with itself. I was there in support of Bishop Abel Muzorewa’s regime. At a meeting with the Prime Minister of Rhodesia, Ian Smith, I asked him about changing his position from opposing majority rule to supporting it. He looked at me, smiling with his eyes …a World War II combat injury to his facial muscles left him unable to express a smile… and said “you’re from Alabama and should be able to appreciate a change in my position. Your own Governor Wallace made such a change.” Mr. Smith was referring to a new George Wallace, a person that I had not yet come to know.
As I saw how Ian Smith, himself a notorious racist, used Governor Wallace’s repudiation of racial segregation and racism as a role model for bringing about an end Apartheid and establishing majority rule in Rhodesia; my assessment of Governor Wallace started to changed from negative to positive. I began to heal from the wound his racially charged rhetoric inflicted upon me that fabled day ten years earlier standing in Cincinnati’s Fountain Square.
In large measure, it is because of George Wallace that my born-in-the-north wife and I returned to Alabama and my beloved Smuteye. When I returned in 1983, Governor Wallace was beginning his last administration. He appointed the most democratic and racially diverse administration in the history of the state.
I met the Governor on several occasions. The time that stands out in my memory was the 1995 reenactment of the voting rights march. Governor Wallace, frail and ill, sat proudly in his wheelchair at the March terminus in the City of St. Jude. As the marchers arrived, he greeted them warmly. March leaders returned his affection.
Will there ever be another Governor of Alabama like George Wallace? That’s not an easy question.
Many politicians today are Wallace wannabes. However, unlike Ian Smith, who followed the older and wiser Governor Wallace’s repudiation of racism and segregation, many of today’s wannabes sport the racist leadership traits of the younger, reckless, unfeeling Governor; traits that he himself discarded as divisive and un-American. Long live the spirit of the reconstructed George Wallace!
Published: 23 September 1998, Montgomery Advertiser
An enlightening response to this column by Atty Winn Faulk.
George Wallace’s daughter lives in shadow of past, June 2013, AP, Yahoo News