A Changed Man

George C. Wallace, one of the most divisive political figures in American history, died at age 79 after years of health problems. The former Alabama governor had been cursed by the civil-rights movement and immortalized by the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd’s "Sweet Home Alabama" ("in Birmingham, they love the guvnah!").

Mr. Wallace proclaimed upon his 1963 inauguration the stance that would weld him into history: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!"

That same year, he made his "stand in the schoolhouse door" trying to keep blacks out of the University of Alabama. In 1964 he tossed a scare into the Democratic Party by entering the presidential primaries. In the next three campaigns, he threw himself into the race for the White House, proclaiming himself a champion of the little guy against the establishment.

Mr. Wallace referred to student protesters as "pointy-headed intellectuals who can’t park their bicycles straight" and won standing ovations from his fans. Auburn University historian Wayne Flynt says that Mr. Wallace’s opportunism became a factor in the retreat of liberalism in electoral politics. "I think Wallace was a genius at seeing where American public opinion was going and shifting his course with the public opinion," Mr. Flynt said.

Republican campaign strategists saw in Mr. Wallace’s success a sign that Southern voters in that region were becoming disaffected with the Democratic status quo. Political strategies like Kevin Phillips saw an "Emerging Republican Majority" and began reaching out to Southern voters. The resulting "Southern Strategy," frequently dismissed as racism, became an integral part of presidential campaigns from Nixon to Bush.

Mr. Wallace himself changed after Arthur Bremer’s 1972 assassination attempt. Left paralyzed in the legs, the governor started to contemplate a world beyond human government. Billy Graham was with Mr. Wallace on the day in 1983 when Christ transformed the man whose segregationist rhetoric had won him votes: "I remember reading to him the verse: ‘What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"

The Christian George Wallace condemned racism. Mr. Graham said, "Gov. Wallace stands as a shining example of what a conversion to Christ can do in a man’s life." In 1994, Mr. Wallace said, "I was wrong, and I’m sorry."

George Wallace’s 1960s defiance was straight-forward. So was his confession.

Reprinted by permission, World Magazine, Asheville, NC.