Our View: Our future is built on our history
Much has been written and said this week about the 50th anniversary of George C. Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama. In our view, a photograph published in these pages this week said as much about the changes in attitudes about race over the past half century as anything else that has been said.

In the photo, a young African-American Episcopal priest is shown with a commendation for Canterbury Chapel in Tuscaloosa, near the university campus. Talladega’s Brandt Montgomery, assistant rector, is shown with the rector from the chapel standing with family members of Rev. Emmett Gribbin, the man who ministered to the chapel’s congregation from 1954-73 — years that encompassed our nation’s civil rights struggle.

The occasion was a “Through the Doors” interfaith prayer breakfast with commendations made to the chapel and to Tuscaloosa’s First African Baptist Church for their roles in the fight against discrimination and segregation.

After confrontations with the KKK and the White Citizens Council, Gribbin said, “One thing I’ve learned as a Christian is to disagree with people’s ideas but still care for them as people.”

Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door was a staged media event. It was a way for him to fulfill a campaign promise, just six months after his “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” inaugural address.

Wallace had taken a more progressive tone on civil rights issues earlier in his political career, and was appointed to the board of trustees at Tuskegee Institute in 1949, where he established a record as an active and productive board member.

Wallace had the NAACP’s endorsement in the 1958 governor’s race, but lost to John Patterson. Four years later, he found victory as a segregationist candidate.

Wallace’s daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, recently gave an interview talking about growing up as the daughter of the man who stood in the schoolhouse door. It’s an image that was broadcast worldwide, and it helped paint a picture of Alabama as a backwards, bigoted state. It’s an image that hurt the people of Alabama, black and white, for decades.

Wallace’s daughter said she didn’t understand why her father did it, and it wasn’t a topic she was ever able to ask him about.

With state troopers and the Alabama National Guard around him, Wallace stood defiantly at Foster Auditorium. As federal Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach approached, Wallace made a speech about states’ rights.

The Kennedy administration made a phone call to federalize the National Guard, and Wallace stood aside on orders from General Henry Graham.

In his later years, Wallace made repeated apologies for his segregationist stands — in person to James Hood and Vivian Malone, the black students who registered that day, and to others. His foundation honored Malone with a special award for her courage. He apologized to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He won his fourth term as governor with the support of a majority of the black voters in the state. And one day in the 1990s, an African-American mother in Talladega checked her son out of school to meet Wallace while he was making a public appearance in the city. That son was Brandt Montgomery.

Like Wallace, our state may never be given full credit for rising above the mistakes of our past.

Anniversaries help us remember our history. Our future is built upon it.

© 2013