At Wallace Funeral, a Redemptive Tone
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 1998; Page A02
MONTGOMERY, Ala., Sept. 16 At one time, his name stood for segregation and racial hatred, the extreme margins of the white man's world. But when George Corley Wallace was laid to rest today in this southern capital that was his launching ground for more than four decades, he was lauded as a political legend who had overcome his prejudices and redeemed his past.
By the time the former four-term Alabama governor and four-time presidential candidate died Sunday night at 79 after years of poor health, his role in national and state politics had faded. But perhaps more than anyone, his career spanned and came to symbolize some of the most turbulent days of the country's history, during which the white-dominated Old South reluctantly gave way to a new era of racial integration.
"Governor Wallace was prepared to do battle where he thought it was necessary at the time and where he thought it was right, and then he had the courage to change and say, 'There were times I was wrong,'" said Gov. Fob James Jr. (R) at a private memorial service at the Capitol just before the public funeral.
In the gracious, white Capitol building, where he was still known as "The Guv-nah," Wallace, looking small and frail in a gray suit and red tie, lay in state for 24 hours in an open casket prior to funeral services this afternoon. An estimated 25,000 mourners, nearly as many blacks as whites, walked slowly past the coffin, not weeping but quietly reverent.
"Bless his heart. We loved him for his determination and his pride and ability and his love for his country and for Alabama," said Martha Bradley, 81, a white Montgomery resident who said she voted for Wallace every time he ran. "I sure hope he wasn't too lonely these last years."
Asked about his early views on race, she said firmly, "No comment."
Wallace spent his later years championing black voting rights. He appointed black officials to state offices in his final term as governor, beginning in 1982, and insisted that he was "rehabilitated," as he put it. But his legacy will always pivot on a single quote and a single image from the bitter civil rights battles of the 1960s.
At his first inauguration speech in 1963, thrusting out his chest in defiance and shouting in his distinctive drawl, Wallace delivered the message that would mark him forever as a hidebound protector of the old ways: "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!"
That same year, the photograph that would always haunt him was snapped as he blocked the doorway of the registrar's office at the University of Alabama, trying to halt National Guardsmen who were there to help enroll the school's first two black students.
Many residents here seemed gently inclined toward the old warrior today, mindful of his years of physical pain and discomfort since an attempted assassin's bullets left him paralyzed from the waist down in 1972, and the eventual softening of his political message.
But others could not forget that early George Wallace.
"I can't see enough good he did to quite erase that image. I was a boy and I remember his segregation talk too well," said Edward Gray, 47, a black Montgomery resident who manages an auto parts store and did not visit the Capitol. "But if he could live with himself, then fine with me."
Others seemed to have forgiven Wallace wholeheartedly. Jesse L. Jackson, who had sparred with Wallace during civil rights demonstrations in Alabama in the 1960s, described the governor as "a figure who represented both tragedy and triumph."
James declared a state holiday, and the streets of this tree-shaded city of 190,000 were lined with state employees and other people who watched in the 92-degree heat as a white hearse led the funeral procession from the Capitol to First United Methodist Church. Later, the procession formed once again for the drive to Greenwood Cemetery, where Wallace was buried next to his beloved first wife, Lurleen.
Wallace's funeral was an interracial ceremony, uniting friends and former enemies, most on the state political level. It also was reminiscent of the fond farewell Alabamians gave in 1968 to Lurleen, who died of cancer after succeeding Wallace in what she freely admitted was a stand-in governorship since he could not succeed himself.
A later marriage to Cornelia Snively, a beauty queen who was the niece of his political mentor, former governor "Big Jim" Folsum, ended in divorce.
Little was said about the facts of Wallace's career: his early days as an amateur boxer, his stint as a Army sergeant in World War II, his time as a county judge, his ascent to the governor's office, his first presidential foray in 1964. In 1968, his maverick third-party bid for president garnered 10 million votes. And even after the assassination attempt by 21-year-old Arthur Bremer in May 1972 at a Laurel, Md., shopping center, he made another run for the presidency four years later from a wheelchair.
Instead, speakers focused on his sense of humor, his devotion to his family and his commitment to politics.
The services were led by the Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, who was unable to attend because of poor health. Wallace became a born-again Christian in 1983, Graham said, "and the result was that he was changed, and he became a man redeemed."
Wallace even reached out to the man who had tried to kill him, Graham said, writing to Bremer in prison, telling him, "I love you."
"I believe if the governor were alive, he would want to be remembered for this," said Graham, offering a variation of the famous quote. "Jesus Christ today. Jesus Christ tomorrow. Jesus Christ forever."
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