She raced past cotton fields at night in her limousine, a weary widow with a desperate message for black voters in Alabama's outback:
"Please don't vote for George Wallace!" said Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil rights leader as the tiny Baptist church in Greensboro echoed with the "Amens" of about 300 black worshipers.
She begged them not to turn back the clock, and invoked the memory of her late husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., once bloodied by Alabama state troopers when Wallace was governor.
Then she drove to another black church to tell its members they "deserve what they get" if they defect to the former segregationist governor, who is counting on black support in his unprecedented bid for a fourth term in Tuesday's tight Democratic gubernatorial primary runoff.
Black civil rights leaders are horrified that Wallace fought his way into a runoff with progressive Lt. Gov. George McMillan by pulling a majority or plurality of the vote in every black county.
"It defies the imagination," Joe Reed, chairman of Alabama's black caucus, said. "Blacks rewarded a man who kicked their tail for two decades."
"It's the kind of thing that makes smoke come out of liberals' ears up in Washington, D.C.," gloated Mickey Griffin, 34, Wallace's national political director in two presidential campaigns. "But we're going to get plenty of black votes."
Black support for George C. Wallace is perhaps the most dramatic example of the emerging importance and unpredictability of black voters in tight races across the country, especially in the South, where federal government machinery to guarantee their right to vote has been in place for only 17 years.
Blacks account for 30 percent of Alabama's voters, and Wallace, 63, paralyzed from the waist down in 1972 by a would-be assassin's bullets, is trying to hold the one-third share he drew in the Sept. 7 primary by preaching forgiveness from a wheelchair. The runoff is being held because no candidate won a majority of the state vote.
To circumvent McMillan's endorsement by black leaders, Wallace has deluged black radio stations with advertisements pitching his ability to bring jobs to a state racked with a 14.2 percent unemployment rate.
He is wiring up his old courthouse gang in majority black counties such as Lowndes, where he won 52 percent of the primary vote. Sheriff John Hulett, a black, is circulating a sample ballot with Wallace at the top.
A Birmingham Post-Herald poll Friday showed Wallace with a narrow 3-point lead over McMillan, with 49.5 percent of the vote in the survey. In another test of voter attitudes, Natalie Davis, a political science professor at Birmingham Southern University, said 40 percent are against Wallace and 40 percent are for him, with 20 percent undecided, many black.
Wallace also is expected to draw heavily from old Wallace backers who gave House Speaker Joe McQuorqodale 25 percent of the Democratic primary vote. Davis' poll shows McMillan with a slight lead, but she believes black voters will give Wallace a narrow victory. The runoff winner faces Montgomery's Republican mayor, Emory Folmar, on Nov. 2.
"The race is a referendum on George Wallace," Davis said.
Wallace has tried to portray McMillan as pro-abortion, pro-ERA and anti-prayer. McMillan, a gangly Birmingham lawyer with an army of preppy volunteers, is fighting Wallace with television spots at a family supper. McMillan's literature shows him in a flight suit, evoking the image of a macho fighter pilot.
To combat bad memories, black leaders are pulling out all of the stops, calling in heavy artillery like Coretta King.
"Have black folks gone crazy?" shouted black state Rep. Alvin Holmes from the pulpit of a rural black church. He told one elderly black woman who admitted voting for Wallace: "Okay, the next time the police come out and beat up your son, don't call me, call George Wallace."
Yet rural blacks for a born-again Wallace say they have forgiven him. They believe him when he recounts his "mistakes." They say they prospered economically when he was governor and yearn for the good old days.
Rose Sanders, wife of a black lawyer from Selma, calls such affection pathological. "It's almost like an abused child, when the parent stops hitting on her and says, 'Honey, I've changed. I'm not going to hit you anymore.' Say she only stops hitting her for two weeks. That child is going to have a lot more respect for the former abuser than a stranger who has never abused them."
But voters such as Eddie Reeves, an unemployed, black 19-year-old from Lowndes County, have decided.
"I can forget all that civil rights stuff ever happened if George Wallace can get me a decent job," Reeves said. He was searching for work on the Hayneville town square where a civil rights worker was shotgunned to death 17 years ago. An all-white jury acquitted the deputy sheriff in the same courthouse where Reeves says he will vote for Wallace.