The story has been in my head ever since George Wallace died. Some years ago, a woman named Joanne Bland of Selma, Ala., stepped out the front door of her workplace and saw the four-term governor of Alabama, four-time candidate for president, sitting on the sidewalk in his wheelchair. Bland, whom I met three years ago, works at a small museum dedicated to the 1965 voting-rights campaign, the one that erupted in a brutal clash between state troopers and unarmed marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Bland, then 11, was on the bridge that day -- Bloody Sunday.
Decades later, she looks up and there sits the man who was Alabama's segregationist governor at the time. She invited him in to see the museum, and he accepted. Enfeebled and in constant pain from a 1972 assassination attempt that crippled him, the old man studied photos of that awful day. Then he looked up at Bland and said, "You have some nice pictures."
Bland was "struck dumb. . . . That's not what you say to a black person who was on that bridge . . ." It took her a few minutes to realize "he was just an old man and didn't mean it like I took it."
Wallace died Sunday at age 79, and I'm still trying to figure out how to be with it. The emotions are complex and paradoxical. As is the story.
Wallace was one of the great villains of the civil-rights struggle. He was a caricature of backwater bigotry straight out of central casting, a bantam rooster of a man with piggish eyes and a shiny pompadour who stood in the schoolhouse door to block black students from entering. At his first inauguration, he vowed, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!"
It was a battle cry that was motivated at least in part by political expedience. After being trounced in his first bid for the governor's chair by a fire-breathing white supremacist, the moderate Wallace had complained that he was "out-niggered" and vowed that it would never happen again. It never did. Wallace mastered the politics of racial scapegoating and defiance, playing masterfully to the fears of poor whites desperate to protect their "supremacy."
It is, perhaps, no coincidence that most of the violence of the organized civil rights-movement -- and most of the defining moments -- happened in Alabama. James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo and Jimmie Lee Jackson died there, Bloody Sunday transpired there, German shepherds and high-pressure hoses were used against demonstrators there, four little girls were bombed in a church there.
And then, change happened there. And as Alabama was being dragged, blinking, into the light of the new day, so did Wallace also transform himself, putting aside suddenly unacceptable language and policies of hatred.
Miraculously, to me, the people who were in the best position to judge never doubted his sincerity. In his final gubernatorial victory, Wallace drew a sizable share of the African-American vote. And upon his death, several blacks with whom he once jousted over the issue of their freedom stepped forward to vouch for the truth of his change.
Certainly, their opinions carry more weight here than mine. But for what it's worth, I was always suspicious of Wallace's great turnabout. One would occasionally see him in those last years -- a sickly old man with death breathing down his neck, repenting his segregationist sins. It struck me that here was a guy just trying to get into heaven.
That was, perhaps, small of me. Too cynical. I didn't allow for the fact that people change. That one is not the same at the end as one was at the beginning. That's the point of all the time in between. Still, it strikes me as fitting, somehow, that on one of his final days, Wallace would end up alongside Bland, studying pictures from that day, pictures he could no longer quite comprehend.
I will try not to make too much of it. I will struggle to accept that change was possible, even here. We all work with what we're given. We all try to get to heaven the best way we can.
The Miami Herald