Samuel G. Freedman, a former religion columnist for the New York Times, is the author of books including “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.”
The Days of Awe, Judaism’s sacred time of penitence, happen to coincide with each autumn’s election season. In worship on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and in contemplation during the surrounding days, Jews are expected to engage in heshbon ha-nefesh — taking stock of one’s soul. And atonement for sin is to be achieved through prayer, charitable giving and, most of all, the repentance called tshuva.
These concepts, of course, inform many other major religions. Islam asks its faithful to practice tawbah, meaning repentance or regret. Catholicism calls on its believers to regularly enter the confessional booth in the sacrament of reconciliation. In the secular world, South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission operated under the twin precepts of forgiveness and repentance.
As I mark the High Holy Days for the 61st time in my life, I recall one act of tshuva as the most profound. Far from being explicitly Jewish, it involved a Christian politician and a particular church. And it is certainly the most relevant to this moment in U.S. history.
On a Sunday morning in 1979, an unexpected guest rolled his wheelchair up the aisle of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. During the city’s 1956 bus boycott, the catalyst for the modern civil rights movement, this pulpit had belonged to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The man in the wheelchair had been King’s nemesis, the former governor and arch-segregationist George Wallace.
Other than an aide to help Wallace navigate the church sanctuary, a surprisingly small place for such a historical one, he brought no retainers and no reporters. Wallace’s pilgrimage was not a media event but the imperative of a troubled soul.
Nobody in Dexter Avenue's pews that morning needed any reminder of Wallace's deeds. A racial moderate early in his political career, he had remade himself into a flaming bigot to win the statehouse. In his inauguration speech in 1963, he infamously declared, "Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever." He made divisive political theater out of confronting Kennedy administration officials trying to desegregate the University of Alabama. Perhaps most notoriously of all, Wallace deployed the state troopers who brutally beat the nonviolent freedom marchers in Selma on "Bloody Sunday" of March 7, 1965.
Seven years later, running for president with the same demagogic style, Wallace fell victim to the turbulent times he helped to stir up. A would-be assassin shot him during a rally in Maryland, and Wallace was paralyzed and condemned to incessant pain.
Just as Judaic theology holds that self-affliction is the essential precursor to repentance — the reason Jews do not eat, drink, bathe or have sex on Yom Kippur — so Wallace was afflicted. And just as the social justice prophets of the Hebrew Bible declared that, more than punctilious performance of rituals, God wanted the Jewish people to act compassionately to the needy and oppressed, so Wallace was now doing something with his physical anguish.
The historian Stephan Lesher, in his biography of Wallace, quoted the governor’s words to the African American congregation: “I have learned what suffering means. In a way that was impossible, I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain, and I can only ask your forgiveness.”
Wallace indeed received it on that day, but his tshuva did not end there. In 1985, more than two years after he was elected governor for the fourth and final time, Wallace met privately with Coretta Scott King and the Rev. Jesse Jackson as they culminated a four-day reenactment of the second, successful march from Selma to Montgomery. Wallace appointed more than 160 African Americans to his administration, including as his press secretary. When the 30th anniversary of the Selma march took place in 1995, Wallace attended and sang "We Shall Overcome" with his former adversaries and victims.
Those gestures impressed many black Americans as acts of genuine contrition. Wallace won more than 90 percent of the black vote in his last race for governor. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who had been beaten unconscious on Bloody Sunday, wrote in a New York Times op-ed soon after Wallace's death in 1998: "I had to forgive him, because to do otherwise — to hate him — would only perpetuate the evil system we sought to destroy. George Wallace should be remembered for his capacity to change. And we are better as a nation because of our capacity to forgive and to acknowledge that our political leaders are human and largely a reflection of the social currents in the river of history."
Now, a generation later, there is no need to reiterate all the well-known and widely reported examples of our present political leaders stirring the cauldron of hatred for electoral advance. Nor is it necessary to call the names of those courtiers who have stood idly by amid the bigotry or made known their private misgivings only through self-serving leaks.
As Wallace recognized in his process of heshbon ha-nefesh, the past can never be changed or undone. A flawed human in search of a spark of morality can answer for it only with humbled, pained, hard-earned tshuva and with compassionate acts beyond the day of atonement. One of my personal prayers in these Days of Awe will be to live long enough to hear such repentance and witness such acts from the arsonists of our national conflagration.
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