A life marked by hate, violence George Wallace gave comfort to racists

September 20, 1998|By Harold Jackson

My wife paused before she left for work Monday morning to let me know that TV news was reporting the death of George Wallace.

I had gone to bed the night before thinking Wallace would once again recover from ailments related to his paralysis after an attempt on his life 26 years ago.

Indeed, his hospital in Montgomery, Ala., had upgraded his condition, but he died last Sunday night. I lay there on my back in bed and thought for a moment.

George Wallace had affected my life as a child growing up in Alabama, as a young college student who worked in the Birmingham hospital where he was brought after being shot in Maryland, and as a news reporter who covered his last two terms as governor.

I was surprised to hear myself whispering the words that years ago I don't think I could have forced myself to mouth: "May he rest in peace."

Three decades ago, peace was the last thing I wished for George Wallace. I believed that the vitriolic comments of Alabama's segregationist governor had helped motivate racists to maim and murder black people.

His kind of venomous rhetoric incited the Ku Klux Klansmen who killed four little girls in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. One of the victims went to my school. Her mother taught there. Her daddy was our milkman.

Only weeks before that tragedy, I had almost been run over by a pickup truck speeding through the streets of Birmingham with a cargo of little white boys who yelled "nigger" at me.

At the time, I didn't blame George Wallace for the charged atmosphere that led to such incidents. I was only 9 years old.

By the time I was 18, I knew what Wallace stood for. I had a summer job at the rehabilitation hospital where he was brought to recover from the 1972 assassination attempt. The hospital held a reception for employees to meet the governor, who had been shot in Laurel, Md. All I could do was look at Wallace. I walked away before my turn to shake his hand.

He was a pitiable sight, so vulnerable in his wheelchair. All I could think about was what his racism had wrought. And that he hadn't always been that way.

NAACP support

In 1958, Wallace was actually supported by the Alabama NAACP in his first bid to become governor. But the "moderate" candidate lost to John Patterson and vowed never again to be defeated because he was soft on segregation.

Transformations of political convenience are not uncommon in Alabama. In his early political career in the state, Hugo Black got Klan support, but he went on to become a champion of civil rights as a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Wallace so embraced racism that it obliterated any hint that he had played with black children as a boy growing up in the little southeast Alabama town of Clio.

Born in 1919, Wallace was one of four children in a farm family. While in high school, he won the 1936 state Golden Gloves bantamweight boxing championship. The next year, he enrolled at the University of Alabama and graduated with a law degree in 1942.

In 1943, he married a 16-year-old dime store clerk, Lurleen Burns, who was elected governor of Alabama in 1966 when Wallace couldn't get the legislature to amend the constitution to allow governors to serve consecutive terms.

After college, Wallace served a brief stint in the Air Force before receiving a medical discharge. He became an assistant attorney general and won a seat in the legislature in 1947. He became a crony of populist Gov. James "Big Jim" Folsom and was elected a circuit court judge in 1953. Then came the crushing defeat to Patterson.

Wallace, who had been appointed a trustee of all-black Tuskegee Institute by Folsom, promised not to be "out-niggered" again. He won the 1962 gubernatorial election with fiery speeches that greatly resembled the blowhard oratory that 100 years earlier had sparked creation of the Confederacy.

"I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny," said Wallace in his 1963 inauguration speech. "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

Months later, he was "standing in the schoolhouse door" in a contrived effort to make it appear that he would not back down to federal authorities to integrate the University of Alabama.

Five years after Wallace's "stand," I became the first black person ever enrolled in the university's summer journalism workshop for high school students. For two weeks, I lived in a dorm, ate in a cafeteria, walked across the campus that Wallace had wanted to keep all-white.

Years later, as a reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald and United Press International, I occasionally got to cover the man who didn't want blacks at the university. Had he been successful, I wouldn't have been there in 1968. I wouldn't have had the experience that made me choose journalism as a career.

Wallace's disheartening loss to a moderate Southerner, Jimmy Carter, in the 1976 Florida presidential primary began to move him in a different direction.

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