MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA. — Montgomery, Alabama -- George Corley Wallace, the former Alabama governor who once was regarded as one the nation's most destructive racists, writhed on his sickbed recently and told me of the thing he regrets most in his 72 years of life.
He says his biggest mistake came during his 1963 inaugural as governor when he stood on a spot in the state Capitol and shouted: ''Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!''
''I never should have said it, because it wasn't true,'' said Mr. Wallace, who lay for most of an almost two-hour interview on a hospital-type bed, trying to ease the pains that he has known since a bullet from would-be assassin Arthur Bremer paralyzed him from the waist down during the 1972 presidential election campaign.
Mr. Wallace said that his health (his hearing is almost gone, but his mind seemed sharp) has nothing to do with his stance in favor of racial integration now. He says he realized in 1964, a year into his first term as governor, that racial segregation could not survive.
''I saw then that a house divided could not stand -- that black and white people had to live with each other,'' he said.
Then why, I asked, did he say ''segregation forever?'' Why did he stand in the door to block the admission of two black youngsters to the University of Alabama? Why in his 1970 campaign did his ads say, ''Unless whites vote on June 2, blacks will control the state?'
''When I first ran for governor, Carl, I had to stand up for segregation or be defeated, but I never insulted black people by calling them inferior. That statement in 1963 about 'segregation forever' and my stand in the classroom door re- flected my vehemence, my belligerence, against the federal court system that seemed to be taking over everything in the South. I didn't write those words about segregation now, tomorrow and forever. I saw them in the speech written for me and planned to skip over them. But the wind-chill factor was 5 below zero when I gave that speech. I started reading just to get it over and read those words without thinking. I have regretted it all my life.''
Mr. Wallace then gave some clues as to why he was granting me the first interview he had given in some six years, though he knew I was writing a book about him and other foes and friends of the civil-rights movement.
He had placed beside his sickbed the honorary degree he received in 1985 from Tuskegee University, the historically black school made famous by Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. ''Blacks gave me a standing ovation when they put the cap and gown on me, and that was the proudest I've ever been,'' Mr. Wallace said. This man wanted me to believe that the damage to his reputation, the American view of him as a brutal bigot, pained him more than the assassination attempt.
I reminded him that some people thought his inflammatory racist remarks in 1963 provoked bigots to bomb, days later, the A.G. Gaston motel and the home of the Rev. A.D. King, brother of Martin Luther King.
''No, no,'' Mr. Wallace said, insisting that he always fought violence. He said those bombings and the blast at a church in Birmingham, killing four black girls in Sunday school, ''sickened my mind, and I said they ought to burn the bottom of the electric chair with the people who did those bombings.''
He gave me a September 1990 letter from A.G. Gaston, the black motel owner, saying, ''You have made a good governor for Alabama. . . . I am now a wheelchair patient as you are. It is my hope that I will live long enough to again vote for a Wallace as governor.''
''I don't support white supremacy,'' Mr. Wallace added. ''I'm the one who made them take 'white supremacy' off the roster that was the symbol of the Democratic Party in this state. . . . I did nothing worse than Lyndon Johnson. He was for segregation when he thought he had to be. I was for segregation, and I was wrong. The media has rehabilitated Johnson, why won't it rehabilitate me?''
To show that the blacks who know him best have ''rehabilitated'' him, Mr. Wallace gave me a computer printout of the 1974 gubernatorial election returns which show him getting a whopping majority of black votes. He gave me a Birmingham News-University of Alabama poll indicating that 74 per cent of blacks regarded him as ''the best governor the state ever had.''
Mr. Wallace asked me to join him in a glass of tea. Two black men lifted him out of bed when he said he would feel less pain sitting in a chair. He lighted a cigar and talked about the current politics of race across America. He said Ronald Reagan had used tactics of divisiveness to install ''a tax structure that is . . . crippling. . . . The rich got richer while the poor and the middle class didn't get anything at all.''
The tea was, in Southern tradition, unbearably sweet. I put down my glass and, upon leaving, heard Mr. Wallace remind me that ''They rehabilitated [former Alabama Senator] John Sparkman, and Bill Fulbright, and Lyndon Johnson. Why won't they rehabilitate me?''
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.