I'm listening as the distinguished man is telling me a story. His black face is lined -- upward crinkles for humor, many downward lines that tell of sadness and loss. I know this man has been an eyewitness to history; that's why we're having lunch at the stylish Paschal's, an Atlanta restaurant that in a previous, scruffier incarnation was the lunchroom for the Civil Rights Movement.
What I hadn't expected to hear was a parable with incredible insights for racism in the South today.
First came a prologue, how my companion, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, came to meet and eventually befriend George Wallace, remembered as the firebrand segregationist governor of Alabama.
Lowery, one of the last living Civil Rights giants, was relating incidents from the early 1960s, the internal give and take of the movement's leadership.
"We got to Montgomery, and Martin" -- that's Martin Luther King Jr. -- "made a speech. Then he had us form a committee to come up with demands, and he named me chairman. We did that, and got ready to go to a rally on the Capitol steps to present the demands."
Lowery is a Methodist minister. His voice rises and falls with the cadence and eloquence of decades of working the pulpit. When he arrived at Paschal's, the stream of well-wishers -- he'd just celebrated his 84th birthday -- was almost non-stop. A waitress, Alicia Quarles, captured the spirit: "Many people forget where they came from. This man, he never forgot."
As he uttered his next words, Lowery's voice shook with passion. People at nearby tables stopped eating to listen. There were nods and smiles of approval, and one "amen."
"What I'm getting ready to tell you," Lowery intoned, "is how the Lord parted the Blue Sea for me." I raised an eyebrow and started to suggest: "You mean the Red Sea?" Lowery smiled, "No, the Blue Sea. Let me tell you."
With his arms now outstretched, Lowery picked up on the Montgomery story. "When we got to the Capitol, state troopers were lined up on the steps. I guess the governor thought we might invade. The troopers didn't move.
"But the general" -- the commander of a National Guard unit that was also on duty at the Capitol -- "called the governor's office. He then waved us forward, but the troopers still didn't move out of the way.
"I looked back at the general. This was a very tense moment. The general, he shouted a command. The Guard soldiers came in from both sides. They confronted the troopers. We didn't know what might happen. But the troopers, a blue sea of uniforms, parted. They gave way. And that's how the Lord, with a little help from the National Guard, parted the Blue Sea, and we marched through on the way to the Promised Land."
Despite gaining a toehold in Alabama's Capitol, the Civil Rights leaders still didn't get to see Wallace. The governor at first sent a secretary to meet with the marchers -- but, Lowery said, "I hadn't walked 50 miles just to talk to a secretary." Then Wallace agreed to a meeting, but wanted it to be with only blacks he named -- "and I wasn't about to let the governor name our representatives," Lowery recalled.
Eventually, the forces of segregation -- personified by Wallace -- did meet with the army of integration. From that first meeting, strange chemistry began brewing between Lowery and Wallace.
History is generally two-dimensional. We remember the media picture of famous people, and the depth of personality often becomes textbook footnotes. Wallace is a good example. He began his political career as a Southern "moderate." That was a strange animal, left of the Ku Klux Klan but often far to the right of the American mainstream. It's a complexity Yankees seldom understand.
For example, when Wallace first ran for governor, in 1958, he said: "I advocate hatred of no man, because hatred will only compound the problems facing the South." Then, after losing the election to Klan-backed John Patterson, Wallace proclaimed: "I will never be out-niggered again." It's the latter quote that's most often cited, along with Wallace's famous rant: "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!"
Those interested in the complete Wallace -- Lowery, for example -- also recall the governor's apology in 1982: "I did stand, with a majority of white people, for the separation of the schools. But that was wrong."
Eventually, Wallace relented on his conditions for meeting with the Civil Rights leadership. Lowery chuckled: "All through the meeting, the governor kept tearing up little bits of paper and piling them into a stack that high." Lowery held his hand about 9 inches from the table. "I think Gov. Wallace had a lot of worries on his mind," Lowery said.
"But I tell you, the governor listened," Lowery said. "I told him, 'I come to you as a Methodist minister to a Methodist layman, and God will hold you accountable.' Wallace replied to me, 'I'm not against colored people, I'm only against the encroachment of the federal government into our affairs.'"
Wallace went on to be elected governor four times, and ran for president four times. In 1972, he was shot and left paralyzed by a would-be assassin. Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Movement marked victories, especially in voting rights, even if society's systemic disparities remain.
At a 1995 memorial for the Civil Rights Movement, Wallace "met us in a wheelchair," Lowery said. "And he apologized for what had happened 30 years earlier."
The cynical journalist asks: Do you really think he was sincere?
"Yes, I do," Lowery said. "I wasn't going to stand in the door blocking his way to repentance the way he stood in the door of the University of Alabama blocking us. Can you imagine, there was a photograph on the front page of the New York Times of George Wallace and Joe Lowery holding hands and singing 'We Shall Overcome.'"
I thought about that for a minute. There's a lot of power in those last statements. During a period when "Christianity" is defined by self-serving theocrats who seem to have never read anything that Jesus said, here's a minister who understands forgiveness.
I asked: "Can the South ever move on past racism?" We talked for a few minutes about the many disturbing signs that the South is regressing -- the re-emergence of restrictive voting laws, the erosion of workplace rights, the callous response to the New Orleans tragedy.
Finally, Lowery interjected, "George Wallace -- George Wallace! -- grew as a man. There is hope for the South."
Postscript: Wallace died in 1998. A few months before his death, he sought a visit from Lowery.
"He was bedridden by then," Lowery said. "He had to write on a screen. He wrote, 'I read where you and Ted Turner are friends.' I said, 'Yes.'"
Wallace then wrote, "Turner's doing a documentary about me. He says I'm an alcoholic. That's not true, but it's OK, I don't mind that.
"And he says I'm a womanizer. That's not true, either, but I don't even mind that.
"But he also says my friend (a black man) was plotting to kill me. That's not true, and I wish you would tell Ted Turner that. Hell, my friend could have killed me many times if that was true."
Turner, according to Lowery, "fell out of his chair" when he heard about Wallace's request. (The movie is the TNT production George Wallace.)
Before Lowery left what would be his last encounter with Wallace, the former governor told the minister: "I love you. I was wrong in 1965."
Read more by John Sugg at www.johnsugg.com.
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