The Poet Who Knew George Wallace
50 years ago, then-Alabama Governor George Wallace pledged "segregation forever!" He later did just the opposite, and commentator Rawlins Gilliland was there to witness some of the change.
After I won a National Endowment for the Arts ‘Master Poet’ grant in 1976, a state Arts Council had to match this honor to become active. In my case, that meant Alabama; a state I had never seen, still run by the infamous segregationist Governor George Wallace.
Having been raised from infancy to embrace civil rights, I was stunned one week after arriving to find myself onstage at a massive industrial plant dedication seated between the now wheelchair-bound George Wallace and his wife Cornelia. It was apparent that their marriage was contentious when the governor involved me ongoing in conversation while completely ignoring his wife.
Since George Wallace was one or the most notorious faces of 1960s racist abuse of power, I was confounded at the end of the event to find myself touched by this plainly broken man whose time had come and gone. I thought about this on the recent 50th anniversary of George Wallace’s disgusting speech when he bellowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” Because, in subsequent conversations in Montgomery with the Governor, the man with whom I spoke throughout my two-year residency was a born again integrationist.
The catalyst for his humanist conversion was never clear. But I could see he truly believed he had done the right thing at the right time earlier in his political role as a racial obstructionist while betraying the better angels of his private heart; agonizing that his devotion to what he described as ‘the sinful past’ had cost him not only his opportunity as a great historical figure but also, perhaps, his soul; once musing if he could go to heaven.
Throughout my Alabama tenure, I sensed that George Wallace’s yesterday had been silently discredited by educated adults who came of age shamed by the world he spent a political lifetime protecting. The first racially mixed dinner parties I ever attended outside my childhood home were in 1970s Alabama. I was proud to represent their state.
In Opelika-Auburn where I lived, the school system already included impressive black leaders who were hardly marginal figureheads. When I spoke in 1977 at the high school commencement, it was to the final graduating seniors to have ever attended a segregated school. Alabama public schools were effectively more fully integrated than in my hometown Dallas.
None of this is intended to shed revisionist light on Alabama’s or George Wallace’s racist past. Nor is it to deny that any change pre-dating my arrival wasn’t forced and painful. Or, for that matter, to say that the land of cotton turned kudzu is today anyone’s model of embracing politics. But it is to remind us that any governed general populace is never a monolithic mirror image of any era’s empowered leaders.
I left Alabama mindful that even the most fabled historic stories have their nuanced colorations. And it never hurts to learn that even a demagogue despot like George Wallace can come to see that an acceptant love of others is any god’s ultimate truth.
Rawlins Gilliland is a writer from Dallas.