Copyright (c) 1996, Roanoke Times

DATE: Thursday, October 24, 1996             TAG: 9610240003


FOR MEMBERS of my generation, the scene didn't quite compute: George Wallace - George Wallace! - reaching out for forgiveness to Vivian Malone Jones, the woman whose attempt to enter the University of Alabama prompted then-Gov. Wallace's infamous stand in the schoolhouse door.

More disconcerting: Jones was in Montgomery to receive an award named for Wallace's late wife, Lurlean, that recognizes women who have made major improvements in Alabama. Wallace's son, former state Treasurer George Wallace Jr. presented the award - a glass eagle - in honor of Jones' courage in integrating the university and becoming its first black graduate.

My generation felt a similar sense of time warp a short time ago when James Hood, the other black student who enrolled at the university in 1963, was photographed, smiling and forgiving, with that same George Wallace who once represented the sturdiest of resistance to black progress.

What to make of it? A friend who has known Alabama's social and political turmoil at first hand thinks he understands Wallace. ``I guess he's sincere in seeking forgiveness,'' he says. ``After all, he knows he's about to die.''

Maybe that's the correct explanation.

I'm willing to believe there's a nobler one: a wish to be done with the ugliness the very name George Wallace evokes for those of a certain age. There haven't been many such powerfully evocative names. Theodore Bilbo was one, but that Mississippi Klansman left the U.S. Senate in 1947, before the civil-rights movement made us believe that the American South might one day be an open society. Maybe David Duke is another, but his political heyday comes at a time when a lot of us believe that movement toward inclusiveness is more or less inevitable. Wallace threatened to snuff out racial hope just when it had begun to flicker into life.

That's hard to forgive. Listen to my friend, reflecting on the 1972 assassination attempt that left Wallace partially paralyzed and the subsequent illnesses, including Parkinson's disease, that have turned him into a drawn and crippled shadow of the demagogic banty rooster we remember. ``What happened to George Wallace,'' he told me, ``made me believe in God.''

It is that unrelenting bitterness to which Jones and Hood stand in such beatific contrast. They are not saints, just people who are ready to move on.

Hood, 53, who spent most of his adult years as a social worker in the North, returned to the University of Alabama last year, this time to pursue a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies. He wants to teach at the university, perhaps become its president, and then - he's serious - make a run for the governorship. He wants Wallace to be the one to hand him his doctoral diploma.

Jones, in accepting her award last Thursday, said she was just ``happy to celebrate a change - a change of attitude, a change of feelings about what's happening in this state.''

They haven't forgotten, just forgiven.

And Wallace for his part has repeatedly renounced his former segregationist views. Unlike Bilbo and Duke, he has begged for forgiveness in words and in whatever symbols he could find - from crowning a black beauty-queen to having Robert F. Kennedy Jr. attend this week's ceremony.

Some people, like my friend, just can't seem to let it go. It's almost as though they need Wallace in order to know who they are and where they stand. And there are others, like Jones and Hood, who have the grace to rise above it all.

``There's no question Wallace will be remembered for the stand in the schoolhouse door,'' said Jones, a recently retired federal worker. ``There's no way you can overcome that. But the best that can happen at this point is to say it was a mistake. We all make mistakes.''

And Hood: ``Was he a racist? Yes. I don't have any doubt about that. But so was I. Of course my situation was very different, but I was also taught that the color of my skin defined who I was.''

Maybe that's the sort of insight that makes forgiveness possible.

- Washington Post Writers Group

LENGTH: Medium:   74 lines

by CNB