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Ex-Ala. Gov. George Wallace Dies

September 15, 1998 GMT

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) _ A snarling Southern segregationist who fanned the flames of racial hatred. A blunt champion of middle America who ran as Dixie’s wild-card candidate for the White House. A wounded, humbled voice of moderation in a region struggling with its past.

George C. Wallace was all three of those things.

At his death Sunday night at age 79, he had come to embody the changing South over the past half-century.

Wallace’s legacy was one of political expediency as well as personal redemption. But his segregationist past may very well overshadow all else.

``I think history will speak sadly but harshly of Wallace,″ Taylor Branch, author of books on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights era, said Monday. While trying to speak for the common man, Wallace was deliberately ``playing to their racial prejudices.″

``Wallace’s tragedy is that despite his apologies and, I think, sincere repudiation of his past, he will forever be remembered as the man who nationalized racism in American politics,″ said NAACP chairman Julian Bond.

Wallace, who was wracked by pain and paralyzed in the legs after a would-be assassin shot him as he campaigned for president in 1972, had asked for forgiveness repeatedly _ even going to King’s old church in Montgomery to make his peace with the black congregation.

Black leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson publicly embraced him.

``Gov. Wallace was a figure who represented both tragedy and triumph,″ Jackson said Monday. ``The tragedy was in his early years. He chose to represent the worst and most divisive dimensions of that anti-integration culture, which resulted in considerable violence against innocent people.″

``The triumph,″ Jackson continued, ``is that Gov. Wallace lived long enough to be repentant of his sins and to be earnest in reaching out to people he had rejected and endangered.″

President Clinton said: ``Like the state he served as Governor and the region he represented as a candidate for president, George Wallace made a painful _ but essential _ journey, abandoning, in the end, the politics of division and embracing the politics of inclusion and reconciliation. For that, all Americans can be grateful.″

Wallace died at a hospital after being stricken with a blood infection. In his memory, flags were flown Monday at half-staff, and a public viewing will be held Wednesday in the rotunda of the state Capitol.

The funeral will be held Wednesday at Montgomery’s First United Methodist Church, with the Rev. Franklin Graham scheduled to deliver the eulogy. Graham is the son of the Rev. Billy Graham.

Across Alabama, Wallace was revered by many for decades. He was elected governor four times _ in 1962, 1970, 1974 and 1982 _ with his first wife, Lurleen, winning in 1966 as his stand-in.

Wallace lost his first run for governor in 1958, campaigning as a racial moderate. When he lost to the hard-line segregationist John Patterson, he vowed never to let any opponent beat him on the race issue again, and held to that position during the 1960s, when churches were bombed and blacks were clubbed for seeking equal rights.

In 1963, when he was sworn into office, he declared: ``In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. And I say ... segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!″

That same year, he made his ``stand in the schoolhouse door″ to try to prevent blacks from enrolling at the University of Alabama. He tried, again without success, to block the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.

By his fourth term, however, he courted and received black support. He helped blacks as well as poor whites get textbooks and access to junior colleges. And he appointed blacks to Cabinet-level posts and judgeships.

``Wallace hurt an awful lot of people,″ Southern historian Wayne Flynt of Auburn University said Monday. ``Alabama is still the most racially divided state that I know of _ that’s the Wallace legacy.″

Flynt said that Wallace’s political transformations _ from rural populist to firebrand segregationist to racial moderate _ showed how he shifted with the electoral winds, both in Alabama and nationally. He said Wallace’s life story should be titled ``American Opportunist.″

``I think Wallace was a genius at seeing where American public opinion was going and shfting his course with the public opinion,″ Flynt said.

Flynt, along with Wallace biographers, said that his rise to national prominence helped forge the modern conservative movement, including Ronald Reagan’s two terms and the retreal of liberalism. Wallace was a voice for rural conservatives and blue-collar workers _ crucial votes for Reagan and other conservatives _ as he called for states’ rights and school prayer while attacking big government, elitism and affirmative action.

His jaw thrust forward, his dark eyes glaring, an undercurrent of anger in his speech, Wallace drew a visceral reaction from supporters _ and rowdy protests from student foes. He dismissed them as ``pointy-headed intellectuals who can’t park their bicycles straight.″

He threw a scare into President Johnson in 1964 when he ran strongly in a handful of primaries, then drew 9.9 million votes and carried five states as an independent in 1968.

``He was the most important 20th century loser in our political life,″ Flynt said.

Secretary of State Jim Bennett, who covered Wallace as a political reporter early in his career, said: ``He opened the door for other Southerners to be elected president, and was in the very forefront of the conservative movement that has swept the country.″

When Arthur Bremer, a former Milwaukee busboy, shot Wallace during a campaign stop at Laurel, Md., in 1972, his national political dreams effectively ended, although he would make a short run in Democratic primaries in 1976. But in Alabama, he was elected twice more as governor.

In his final years, when he was deaf, unable to walk and barely able to talk in a whisper because of Parkinson’s disease and other ailments, Wallace said he had asked for forgiveness from blacks and shouldn’t be remembered for his segregationist stand alone.

``Unfortunately, that probably will be his legacy, the stand in the schoolhouse door,″ said Rep. Sonny Callahan, a Republican from Mobile. ``Even though he was forgiven by the very people it upset the most, I think that will be his historical moment.″