For people of a certain age the name Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama conjures an infamous image of his “stand in the schoolhouse door,” his failed attempt to literally block the entry of two African-American students to the University of Alabama. The stand-off marked the high-water mark of Mr. Wallace’s public campaign against integration, an effort he launched six months earlier in January 1963, when he promised Alabamans “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Thankfully, Mr. Wallace’s pledge went unfulfilled, and the Jim Crow system of segregation that had prevailed throughout the South since the end of Reconstruction was largely dismantled by 1970. But that did not stop Mr. Wallace’s race-baiting politics, which he brought to the national stage in three failed runs for president in 1964, 1968 and 1972. It was during the ’72 contest, just as he was surging in the polls, that the governor was shot five times at a campaign event in Laurel, Md. This effectively ended that presidential campaign and left him paralyzed from the waist down, in excruciating and constant pain for the rest of his life.
People who knew Mr. Wallace say that the shooting fundamentally changed him. One of those who observed his conversion was Lynwood Westray, an African-American man who served as a butler at the White House for 32 years. “After George Wallace was shot you would think he was one of our buddies,” Mr. Westray recounted in an interview with Kate Andersen Brower, author of a recent book about the upstairs-downstairs world of the White House. “Every time he’d come down to the White House, the first thing he’d do was come back and want to be back there with us, back there in the butler’s pantry.” The assassination attempt “changed him completely.”
Governor Wallace’s final years (he died in 1998) suggest that the conversion was genuine. He became a born-again Christian and in 1979 made an unannounced, unpublicized trip to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, the church where Martin Luther King Jr. had served as a pastor. Mr. Wallace told the congregation: “I have learned what suffering means. In a way that was impossible [before]. I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain and I can only ask for your forgiveness.”
In his final term as governor (1983-87), Wallace did even more than that. He appointed a record number of African-Americans to state offices and dramatically increased the number of African-Americans registered to vote. The Tuskegee Institute awarded him an honorary degree. The Rev. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of the organizers of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, then invited Governor Wallace to an event to mark the march’s 30th anniversary in 1995. Pastor Lowery told the frail former segregationist: “You are a different George Wallace today. We both serve a God who can make the desert bloom. We ask God’s blessing on you.”
Thus is the power of forgiveness. We need more of it everywhere but especially in our politics. It does not mean that we forget what has happened. “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act,” Dr. King wrote in 1957. “It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning.”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways. It took a bullet to straighten [George Wallace] out,” said Mr. Westray. The question remains: What will it take to straighten out the rest of us?