In 1979, George Wallace, crippled by an attempted assassination seven years before, went to Martin Luther King’s church in Montgomery, Alabama, and asked the mostly black congregation to forgive him for the hurt he had caused black people throughout his life. The story of that is told here in a recent Washington Post column that is well worth reading.
I had forgotten this about George Wallace. In my mind, he remained the red-faced, spitting bigot he was throughout the civil rights protest era. This is unfair to him, of course, and I was glad to be reminded of that unfairness by the Post article.
When I think of George Wallace’s redemption — because that is what it was — I wonder if a similar redemption is possible for Donald Trump and the worst of the other Trumpites. I’m afraid that I doubt it…but then, George Wallace.
When he spoke to the Montgomery congregation, Wallace accounted for his change of heart by saying, “I have learned what suffering means.” He was speaking, of course, of the paralysis and pain that followed the assassination attempt that nearly killed him. I’m sure he suffered greatly, but the suffering alone could not have accomplished the change in him. For that to happen, he had to be open to it. He had to have enough humility and grace to look past his own overwhelming suffering and to apply the understanding of it to the experiences of others. The fact that he could do that is testimony to George Wallace’s intelligence and character, whatever one might say about his actions through the ’60’s.
People of faith might say that Wallace’s wounding and subsequent repentance were actions of God in the world. I don’t really believe that; the ideas of a Master Plan and a personally-involved God are too much for my cynical, modern mind. But the not-quite-extinguished Methodist that still flickers somewhere in my brain conjures up a picture I can’t quite shake. It’s a picture of a small, elderly black woman somewhere in Alabama praying for the salvation of George Wallace’s soul. Perhaps that woman is imaginary, and perhaps the answering of prayers is imaginary too, but it’s a powerful picture nonetheless.