In the spring of 1989 I read in the paper that George Wallace finished his last term as governor of Alabama to generally high approval ratings from both black and white voters. The writer cited substantially improved health and education indices as a cause. Hmm, I thought. Months later, on August 20 (I know the date because it was Mama’s birthday), I read in the paper that Jesse Jackson had gone to Montgomery to meet with the Governor. What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall, I thought. Wily young populist fox meets with wily old populist fox.
Talking to Mama later that day (she was in Tennessee, I was in Arizona), I told her what I’d seen and said, “You know, I ought to write a letter to Wallace before I wake up some morning and find out he’s dead.”
“Well, why don’t you do it?” she asked. “What do you want to tell him?”
“That I think he’s made good use of the shooting that put him in that chair, that he’s helped people and turned his life around—and that I’m not just blowing smoke, that I have a right to say so, because of my being in a chair too.”
I wrote the letter that night. I can’t remember what I made explicit and what remained unsaid, but I remembered his having gone to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his father, and having asked forgiveness of the congregation. I thought about what being brought low can do to a person. I know I expressed my appreciation and good wishes and thanks for his good work. The next day I called the library and got an address.
When I was home for Christmas, Mama asked me if I’d heard from the Governor.
“No. Maybe it didn’t get to him, or maybe it was too personal and he took offense.” We went on to other things.
I went back to Arizona, and graduate school. The end of February I had a lot on my mind: my final exams in the middle of the week and going home to see Mama on Saturday. So, Monday when I got my mail and saw a return address from “Wallace, Troy State University, Montgomery,” at first I thought it had to do with some inquiry I’d made in regard to my research. THEN I opened it.
“Dear Miss Park,” Wallace began, “Please accept my apologies for the delay in answering your letter. I have been under the weather and have fallen behind in my correspondence.” He went on to express thanks for my “kind sentiments” and acknowledged “the situation we both share.” The ending was simple. “Please know that I am sincerely yours, George C. Wallace.”
The first time I read the letter I could barely see it for tears. Somehow he conveyed to me a courtliness that spoke of more than manners, something that touched me to the heart.
As it happened I went home early to see Mama that week. She had a stroke on Wednesday and died on Saturday. In the months and weeks that followed more than once I thought about calling Troy State University, getting the Governor’s secretary, and flying to Montgomery to take the Governor to dinner. I could have done it. Mama left me enough money that I could indulge the occasional grand gesture. I didn’t do it. I wish I had.
Note: The photo "Almost Monochrome" appears in my photostream at Flickr.com.