Old segregationist sees the light from the right

Missing Persons No. 35 George Wallace
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The Independent Online
His brown hair is grey now, but is still slicked back in movie- gangster style. The eyebrows remain bushy, looming over the piercing dark eyes that tried, in 1963, to stare down the US government. And his pinched lips can still break into a snarl, as they did when he proclaimed: "Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation for ever!"

But George Wallace, 75, the Alabama governor who stood "in the schoolhouse door" over 30 years ago to try to prevent two black students from entering the state university, appears much different today. He has been in a wheelchair since 1972, paralysed in an assassination attempt during the second of his three presidential campaigns. He has Parkinson's disease, his eyesight is poor, and he can barely hear or speak.

But inside the broken body is a new man, freed by fate from his hard- right chrysalis, a man at peace with himself and the world. Mr Wallace, a born-again Christian since he was shot, recently talked of race and redemption with John F Kennedy Jr, son of John and nephew of Robert Kennedy, the President and Attorney-General who clashed with the Alabama Democrat and won.

"I was right about some of the issues I talked about," he said in the inaugural issue of George, Mr Kennedy's new magazine. "But I was wrong about civil rights. The things I was saying back in 1968" - when, as an independent presidential candidate he won 13 per cent of the vote - "were the things that people wanted to hear. And the people still want to hear those things today."

Was he ahead of his time? Mr Wallace's calls for law and order and advocacy of states' rights strike a chord today. Many consider him the spiritual father of the Republicans' "Contract with America". He expects Bob Dole to win the Republican nomination and to carry the South. He is no fan of Bill Clinton: "I'd tell him ... not to put gays in the military and to stop being for abortion". Colin Powell is "a very fine man" and Jesse Jackson is "a good friend". But no, he does not expect to see a black president in the time left to him.

"People have always equated segregation with hatred," Mr Wallace said. "But that's not true. We were all taught that segregation was in the best interest of the people . . . I'm not a different man. I didn't hate blacks 30 years ago, and I don't hate blacks today."

Nor, he said, did his politics change after he was born again. "I was taught that segregation was best for both races. But then, a few years ago, I decided it wasn't . . . My conscience said it was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong . . . And now segregation's gone. Good riddance."

If he had his life to live over, Mr Wallace said, "I wouldn't have sinned as much as I did." Was he prepared to die? "I'm not afraid of death like I used to be, because ... I'll be forgiven my sins."

"What are your sins?" Mr Kennedy asked. "I tell my sins to God, not to people like you," the old devil snarled.