Forgiving George Wallace

August 30, 1997|By Harold Jackson

THE FIRST TIME I was supposed to meet George Wallace, I didn't. I couldn't. I wouldn't.

It was just after events depicted in the new television docudrama that shows the 1972 shooting of Alabama's governor as he campaigned for president in Laurel.

Back home in Birmingham from my freshman year at a Kansas college, I had a summer job at Spain Rehabilitation Center. The hospital helped paralyzed men and women prepare for new lives without the physical mobility they had always taken for granted.

Coincidentally, one patient had been a football star at my high school, now paralyzed from a swimming-pool diving accident.

I had great respect for the place; my father had been a patient at Spain after a stroke in 1967. The therapists were like drill sergeants. They refused to let anyone leave that hospital who was unable to do more than he had been when he was first rolled in.

My job was of little consequence, a government-program position for needy students. I worked in the audiology lab where doctors attended people with speech and hearing problems. They designed hearing aids, did research on speech impediments, conducted myriad tests.

I mostly ran errands. But sometimes I would help the lab technician repair equipment or assist in hearing tests. The doctors even showed me how to do rudimentary statistical tables involving test data; quite a feat since I have always been mathematically challenged.

We found out Wallace was coming to Spain with the abrupt notice that all employees must be photographed for I D cards. Security was tight during the weeks he went through the same physical and occupational therapy provided other new paraplegics.

He also visited our lab to be fitted with a hearing aid, but I didn't see him. Near the end of his stay, someone had the bright idea to hold a reception for the governor so all the hard-working people at Spain could meet him personally.

Black employees had a dilemma. Some feared not attending the reception might anger their bosses. Others offered empty boasts that they would tell the segregationist what they thought of him. Most at least wanted to see if such a malevolent figure in American history had horns.

Time to think

I was certainly curious. I went to the reception. But entering meant you became part of the receiving line. It was long, which was good. It gave me time to think. I was about a dozen people away from Wallace when I stepped out of the line. People stared at me. I looked back at Wallace. He kept shaking hands. I walked away.

The racial venom stirred to a bloody froth by Wallace and others who used intolerance to further their political careers was unconscionable. And in 1972, Wallace was not recanting anything. That came much later as continuing pain from his injuries taught him the truth about suffering.

There is a misconception that African Americans in Alabama were demonstrating their forgiveness of Wallace in 1982 when their votes gave him the edge needed to win another term as governor. Not so. Those votes represented the same political pragmatism that led Wallace to seek them. He was the candidate who promised and could deliver the most.

I never voted for Wallace and I never shook his hand, although I met him more than once after becoming a reporter. I can still see him feigning deafness, cupping a hand around his hearing aid when asked a question he didn't want to answer. They say he doesn't have to pretend now.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those people who says Wallace deserved what he got. I don't like to see anyone suffer. And I do believe in forgiveness. But that doesn't mean I have to forget.

Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/30/97

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