The politics of hate

September 16, 1998|By Sara Engram

IN HIS LATER years, George C. Wallace offered many apologies to blacks for his history of racist politics. I'm still waiting for mine.

For all the harm he did to African Americans in Alabama and elsewhere, he managed never to recognize -- not formally, at least -- that his low-road politics damaged not just black people, but everyone in his state.

Growing up in Alabama during the heyday of the Wallace years, I watched a man so hungry for the governorship that he eagerly appealed to the basest instincts of his fellow whites. Then, as governor, he became so obsessed with higher glory he mortgaged whatever prospects the state had for getting beyond the politics of hate. Instead of progress for Alabama, he chose to advance the cause of George Wallace, in a tragic quest to cast himself as champion of the little guy against an over-weaning federal government.

In the end, it was the little guys, the ordinary people of all races, who suffered most from this megalomania, although Mr. Wallace himself paid an egregious physical price after an assassination attempt in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Laurel.

Had Mr. Wallace, who died Sunday at 79, chosen another course, those "little guys" could have benefited from new jobs, better roads, stronger schools and university budgets that treated their academic programs as generously as their football teams.

Most of all, the little guys of Alabama -- and the big guys, too -- desperately needed a vision, a leader capable of pointing beyond an ingrained culture of division and defeat.

I didn't actually hear the famous proclamation of "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," but I did have the dubious honor of marching with my high school band in that inaugural parade on an icy January day in 1963.

Our band was one of the larger, better equipped and better trained groups that passed the reviewing stand that day. In my small hometown, deep in the southeast corner of the state, the village elders had decided well before the Wallace years that state funding for schools was inadequate. They raised the sales tax to ensure that children there (white children, at least) would get a decent education.

As a result, many of my fellow band members were well-prepared for college work -- often at some of the country's best schools. But for too many good students in my school and others, the road to opportunity and fulfillment led out of Alabama.

That exodus of talent, black and white, is part of the Wallace legacy.

For all Alabamians, the Wallace legacy is perpetuated in a state that lags perpetually behind -- not just behind most of its neighbors, but also far behind its potential. Compare Alabama with almost any other Southern state and you can trace how a strategy of dividing blacks and whites can produce elective victory while yielding economic defeat.

Another aspect of the legacy can be seen in the state's political discourse, which remains fixated on issues that divide people, not on a vision that educates, elevates and points toward prosperity. Exhibit A: The antics in this year's governor's race attracted national attention for the "E-factor" -- that's E for embarrassment.

Now Mr. Wallace is dead, and I'm left to wonder why, in all his latter-day confessionals, he never apologized to whites -- telling them straight out what a disservice he did to them and to their children for appealing to their worst instincts, for using his ability to stir an audience to urge people to follow their predilections for division and defeat, rather than rallying them toward a future that could bring people together, creating a more vibrant society and a deeper, wider prosperity.

Like other memorable politicians, George Wallace had a gift for preaching. Too bad, when he finally realized what the message should be, he preached it only to the choir -- not to those back-pew sitters in the white community who still fail to see that addictions to the prejudices of the past hold everybody back.

Sara Engram is an editor for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/16/98

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