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  • Wallace Remembered
  •   George Wallace – From the Heart

    By Colman McCarthy
    Friday, March 17, 1995; Page A27

    In the annals of religious and political conversions, few shiftings were as unlikely as George Wallace's. In Montgomery, Ala., last week, the once irrepressible governor – now 75, infirm, pain-wracked and in a wheelchair since his 1972 shooting – held hands with black southerners and sang "We Shall Overcome."

    What Wallace overcame is his past hatred that made him both the symbol and enforcer of anti-black racism in the 1960s. On March 10, Wallace went to St. Jude's church to be with some 200 others marking the 30th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march.

    It was a reaching-out moment of reconciliation, of Wallace's asking for – and receiving – forgiveness. In a statement read for him – he was too ill to speak – Wallace told those in the crowd who had marched 30 years ago: "Much has transpired since those days. A great deal has been lost and a great deal gained, and here we are. My message to you today is, welcome to Montgomery. May your message be heard. May your lessons never be forgotten."

    In gracious and spiritual words, Jo\seph Lowery, a leader in the original march and now the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, thanked the former separatist "for coming out of your sickness to meet us. You are a different George Wallace today. We both serve a God who can make the desert bloom. We ask God's blessing on you."

    This scene at St. Jude's – he is the patron saint of hopeless causes – invites an obvious and skeptical question: Was Wallace, the one-time spewer of venom, sincere? Or was it nothing more than a ploy at going out on positive publicity rather than being embedded in history as the racist blocking a schoolhouse door?

    The evidence suggests genuineness. In 1979 at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery – where Martin Luther King Jr. pastored in the 1950s – Wallace made an unpublicized and unannounced Sunday morning visit to the congregation. As recounted by Stephen Lesher in his 1994 book, "George Wallace: American Populist," the former governor was pushed up the aisle and spoke: "I have learned what suffering means. In a way that was impossible {before the shooting}, 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."

    In 1982 Wallace expressed the same sentiment before the SCLC. He has apologized during a television interview. In 1987 he reconciled and prayed with Jesse Jackson.

    In Wallace's last term as governor in the late 1980s, he hired a black press secretary, appointed more than 160 blacks to state governing boards and worked to double the number of black voter registrars in Alabama's 67 counties. In part, it was the politics of patronage – in his last race for governor he won with 60 percent of the vote and well over 90 percent of the black vote – but on a deeper level it was using his waning political power to bond with those he once scorned. Tuskegee Institute responded with an honorary degree.

    Lesher saw Wallace's change as revealing "a humanity too often lacking in his actions: alone and crippled, forced to introspection for the first time in his life, he realized that though he had purported to be the champion of the poor and the helpless, he had trampled on the poorest and most helpless of all his constituents – the blacks."

    By word and act, Wallace comes close to being a living example of one of Martin Luther King's most enduring sermons, delivered on Christmas 1957 at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. It was on forgiveness as both a theological virtue and a practical way of life.

    "Forgiveness," King said, "does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. ... While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community."

    George Wallace is as much a part of that community as any other repentant who seeks and receives forgiveness. Wallace didn't create segregation. For much of his early political life, anti-black racism was constitutional, as it has been for most of America's life.

    How many more Wallaces still need to come forward and show the courage of asking forgiveness? Whatever the number, no shortage exists of large-hearted blacks like Joe Lowery willing to ask God's blessings for them.

    © Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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