30 years later, Wallace apologizes to marchers

March 11, 1995|By Rick Bragg | Rick Bragg,New York Times News Service

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- The marchers came to the old man in the wheelchair, some to tell him he was forgiven, some to whisper that he could never be forgiven, not now, not a million years from now.

Yet to all of the people who retraced the steps of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march 30 years ago, George C. Wallace offered an apology for a doomed ideal.

The former Alabama governor, whose name became shorthand for much of the worst of white Southern opposition to the civil rights movement, held hands with men and women he had once held down with the power of his office. To one aging civil rights war horse, he mumbled, "I love you."

Three decades ago, he was preaching the evil of integration and found approval, even adoration, in the eyes of many white Alabamians.

There was the legendary stand in the schoolhouse door to keep blacks from registering at the University of Alabama. It was his state troopers who used billy clubs and tear gas to control and intimidate marchers on the way to Selma. Then he took his message nationwide in a run for president in 1968 and again in 1972.

A would-be assassin's bullet in a Maryland shopping center in 1972 crippled him, but his old words and views echo today on the lips of conservative politicians and others, even though the man people here just call "Th' Guv'na" has long since apologized and begged for forgiveness.

Now 75, in a wheelchair for a third of his life, he was too ill to make a speech to the 200 marchers, mostly black, who gathered at the St. Jude School in Montgomery, as they did on this day three decades ago. Instead, an aide read his remarks as Mr. Wallace, almost completely deaf, sat in silence.

"My friends," the aide read, "I have been watching your progress this week as you retrace your footsteps of 30 years ago and cannot help but reflect on those days that remain so vivid in my memory. Those were different days and we all in our own ways were different people. We have learned hard and important lessons in the 30 years that have passed between us since the days surrounding your first walk along Highway 80."

A woman in a brown beret quietly said, "Amen."

"Those days were filled with passionate convictions and a magnified sense of purpose that imposed a feeling on us all that events of the day were bigger than any one individual," the speech continued in its borrowed voice. "Much has transpired since those days. A great deal has been lost and a great deal has been 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. May our history be always remembered."

The marchers applauded. For 10 years now he has admitted the wrongness of his deeds 30 years ago. Still, to many of the people who suffered at the hands of the law enforcement officers he ultimately commanded, it was important that he said it on this symbolic day.

But 30 yards away, 58-year-old Rufus Vanable sat in the shade of a tall pine tree and refused to hear.

"I ain't even interested in what he's saying," said Mr. Vanable, a retired construction worker who was part of the march that was bloodied on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. "If you lived through it, you wouldn't be either. If he thinks this will ease his mind in some way, let him do it. I'm not interested in looking at his face. It brings back too many memories."

Like many others in the crowd, he said Mr. Wallace, a religious man, is trying more to clear a path to heaven than to soothe the painful memories of others.

"He's trying to get right with his maker, that's what he's doing," Mr. Vanable said. "It was hell. Any man who'd sick dogs on a child -- He ain't made up for it."

As the marchers sang "We Shall Overcome," Mr. Vanable sat under his tree and sang to himself.

Others were more forgiving.

"Thank you, for coming out of your sickness to meet us," said the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an organizer of the March 7, 1965, march.

"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."

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