The arc of justice

March 27, 1995|By JOSEPH E. LOWERY

Atlanta -- LAST FRIDAY MARKED the 30th anniversary of a pivotal event in America's long struggle for justice and equality -- the arrival in Montgomery, Ala., of a brave band of marchers who had set out from Selma three days before to protest the evil of segregation and, specifically, the denial of the fundamental right to vote.

Two weeks ago, in an act of commemoration, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a coalition of associates chose to march that hallowed 54-mile trail once more.

We wanted to remind ourselves and our country of the bitter price we paid for the right to vote 30 years ago, as well as the painful cost of failing to exercise that right today.

We wanted to precipitate a heightened level of voter activism and revive a political process wounded by disillusionment and disgust.

We do not yet know how much we have done to further these objectives. But we did find at the end of our journey one reason to hope that the country might change for the better yet again.

We found it in the person of George Wallace -- the former Alabama governor whose troopers had used their billy clubs and tear gas on "Bloody Sunday," the man who demonized the federal government and deified states' rights, the man who stood defiantly in the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, the man whose lips dripped with interposition and nullification and who shared blame for a racial atmosphere that led to bloodshed and death.

Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black youth in Marion, Ala., died at the hands of state troopers and became the first casualty of the voting rights campaign.

James Reeb was killed in Selma, Jonathan Daniels in Lowndes County and Viola Liuzzo on Highway 80 transporting marchers from Montgomery back to Selma.

I met Mr. Wallace shortly after the 1965 march, when Martin Luther King Jr. asked me to chair the committee that would present our demands for equal rights.

The meeting, which the governor agreed to only at the urging of the Methodist bishop in Alabama, lasted 90 minutes. I advised him that from the perspective of a Methodist preacher to a Methodist layman, God was going to hold him accountable for his deeds.

Our second meeting, on the 20th anniversary of the march in 1985, was a revelation. George Wallace was governor again!

He was in almost unbearable pain, the result of an assassination attempt in 1972. He admitted he was wrong in the 60s. We prayed for his suffering.

This year, the message came that Mr. Wallace -- now weak, crippled and ill -- wanted to greet and welcome us when we arrived at St. Jude's High School in Montgomery.

That he wanted to come and welcome us and affirm our purpose was like a flash of lightning that blinds and yet shines across a way filled with shadows cast by those who interpret the November elections as a mandate for malice.

Perhaps Mr. Wallace sends a message to today's demagogues who, with their efforts to invalidate congressional district lines, and their assaults on all forms of affirmative action, now embrace a new brand of nullification and interposition.

The arc of the universe bends toward justice. I thanked Mr. Wallace for his act of courtesy. Marchers applauded his welcome. We could not, would not, deny him an act of repentance.

Joseph E. Lowery is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

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