Wallace obituaries overlook four important names

September 16, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

LET'S NOT SAY THE name George Wallace without mentioning four others: Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson.

Wallace, the former Alabama governor, died Sunday. His eulogies and obituaries have mentioned his segregationist past but claim that in later years Wallace was a changed man who repudiated racism and was genuinely sorry for making blatant appeals to bigotry.

Omitted from all that gushing language is that Wallace's supposed repudiation of segregation was his second metamorphosis, not his first. He ran as a moderate in his first campaign for Alabama governor in 1958 and lost to a hard-core segregationist. The obituary in Monday's Sun quoted Wallace as saying he would never be "out-segged" again. But other reports say the term Wallace actually used was "outniggered." His passion for integration and repudiation of racism and segregation didn't come until the 1965 Voting Rights Act inspired Alabama blacks to register in record numbers.

Not one of the eulogies or obituaries mentioned Denise, Cynthia, Addie Mae or Carole -- the four girls killed in the infamous September 1963 church bombing in Birmingham. But Ray Jenkins, former Evening Sun editorial page editor, did mention in an opinion page piece yesterday that the church bombing happened on Wallace's watch as governor and may have been inspired by his "incendiary rhetoric."

"Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," Wallace bellowed in his January 1963 inaugural speech as Alabama's governor. Yahoos in Alabama heard that message and responded accordingly. They -- and Wallace -- knew that segregation in the South had been maintained by visiting upon its black citizens some of the worst state-sponsored terrorism in modern times. If segregation was to be maintained, the terror had to be increased in the face of the burgeoning civil rights movement. Wallace certainly knew that his "segregation forever" remark was nothing but a code term for the terrorists to don their hoods and increase their havoc.

That's why the perpetrators of the bombing were neither caught nor prosecuted during Wallace's first term. That's why we never heard one word from Wallace calling the bombing the heinous crime it was and pledging to lend the full weight of his governor's office to bringing the killers to justice.

No, instead we heard this hypocrite scream for law and order in his 1968 presidential campaign. Wallace, the same man who all but egged on the men who bombed a church in 1963, who presided over a state whose largest city had so many unsolved racial bombings that it was called Bombingham, not Birmingham, stood before the country and said he was the man who would uphold the rule of law and restore order to our streets.

Some in the country ate it up. As a third-party candidate, Wallace won five states in the 1968 election. In May 1972, Marylanders -- to our everlasting shame -- gave him an overwhelming victory in the Democratic primary. That was after Wallace had been shot five times in Laurel. Our sympathies got the best of us. We were thinking of poor George Wallace lying in bed with five bullet wounds. We should have been thinking of Denise, Cynthia, Addie Mae and Carole, whose murderers the man we gave our votes to was sworn to bring to justice.

We should have been thinking that the man we voted for never brought those men to justice, that he never uttered one word about his culpability in the bombing, that he never said, "Yes, my words inspired that, my failure of leadership allowed the killers to go free." Instead, we went out and voted for him, as if being a shooting victim were some kind of qualification to be president.

Wallace's shooting wasn't the tragedy the nation thought it was. It was a case -- as Malcolm X pointed out some nine years earlier -- of chickens coming home to roost. In Wallace's case, the race-baiting, violence-inspiring chickens didn't just come home to roost. They came home, did the funky chicken and partied.

Wallace fiddled while parts of Birmingham were bombed. He winked at violence carried out by racist terrorists. Collie Leroy Wilkins Jr., accused of killing Detroit housewife Viola Liuzzo, was acquitted by an all-white Alabama jury. Another all-white jury acquitted the men accused of killing the Rev. James Reeb, a Boston minister. Both Liuzzo and Reeb came to Alabama to protest segregation. Both juries followed Wallace's lead in preserving segregation forever.

You have to wonder if Wallace ever got the message: that if you tolerate violence to achieve political ends, you may yourself become the victim of it.

Pub Date: 9/16/98

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