I have just finished work on a book tentatively titled The Darkest Valley about three iconic Southern men: Governor George Wallace, Klan leader Robert Shelton, and civil rights lawyer Morris Dees. The book focuses on the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama. In the course of my research, I interviewed two of Wallace's children, his namesake George Wallace Jr., and his daughter Peggy Wallace Kennedy. I was impressed by how George and Peggy were struggling to deal honestly with their father's legacy.
In my talk with Wallace Jr., he was deeply understanding of his father's ambivalent legacy. In Wallace Jr.'s own book, Governor George Wallace: The Man You Never Knew, he wrote, "I know that my father believed integration was inevitable, and clearly he used that issue to gain political power. He rose to power on the backs of the least among us, the black folks of Alabama."
Knowing all that, I was startled a few days ago to read Wallace Jr.'s attack on the powerful new film, Selma, for its portrayal of his father. Wallace Jr. writes that his father's "journey toward redemption helped lead the South and, indeed, much of the rest of the nation, along the path to reconciliation." As evidence of that, he writes that his father "even visited the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King once pastored, and asked the congregation for its forgiveness."
That's a story that Wallace admirers like to tell. The governor's Bancroft Prize winning biographer Dan T. Carter took the trouble to go to the news accounts of Wallace's 1974 visit to the church. Those stories make it clear that Wallace said what he always did. He was not a racist. He was for states' rights. He had been misunderstood.
Wallace Jr. writes that his father's "acceptance of segregation was with no sense of ill feeling, malice, or hate toward black people." In private, Wallace constantly used the "n" word. He mocked black people. He despised them. He thought they were inherently inferior.
Last October Peggy Wallace Kennedy gave the keynote address at an event kicking off the Morris Dees Legacy Fund for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "My father Governor George Wallace stood on the wrong side of justice, riding on the wings of fear rather than seeking justice on the wings of eagles," she said. "The Edmund Pettus Bridge is now a monument to change rather than a battleground for justice, but how far has America really come if there are thousand upon thousands of Americans who still cannot vote. How many more anniversaries of the struggle for civil rights can we celebrate by looking over our shoulders rather than standing shoulder to shoulder to face the challenges ahead?"
It was the kind of speech Peggy Wallace Kennedy's father would have given if he had truly sought reconciliation. At the time of the Selma march, President Lyndon Johnson said to Wallace, "What do you want left behind? You want a great, big marble monument that says, 'George Wallace: He Built.' Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine laying there that says, 'George Wallace: He Hated.'"
Wallace made his choice, and these days people in Alabama for the most part want to forget George C. Wallace. In Montgomery there is a Rosa Parks Museum and signs memorializing the city's role as a slave-trading center, but there is nothing of substance commemorating the life of the most significant politician in Alabama history.