Minnesota is Alabama—which explains why shortly after George Wallace dies I’m climbing a tree outside the Twin Cities.
Or maybe that doesn’t explain anything. Perhaps I should say I’d originally driven up to the Minneapolis suburb of Fridley for a job interview and that driving this far is a big deal for a transplanted southern boy who never leaves the Twin Cities. In fact, my knowledge of outstate Minnesota is so weak that only after an hour of rush-hour traffic do I realize Fridley isn’t that close to Minneapolis. Still, the money is good and if people from the suburbs can commute an hour to downtown, I can do the reverse. All I want is for the interview to go well.
It doesn’t. Upon hearing my accent, the jerk of a HR manager asks where I’m from.
He sniffs up and down, then mimics in a poor southern drawl, “Waaal, ah hear ol’ Wallace passed away on Sunday.”
“Yeah,” I mutter. “I heard.” I suck up my anger for the rest up the interview as the manager keeps saying “ya’ll” whenever he refers to me. Finally, irritated, angry, tired of being so damn southern polite, I point out that ya’ll is plural, not singular. “Didn’t they teach you grammar up here?” I ask, then thank him for wasting my time and walk out.
Which is how I wind up climbing an oak tree at the Springbrook Nature Center. I saw the signs for the nature preserve while driving in. On my out I decide I might as well get something out of this trip to the suburbs.
George Wallace had his cheap Hav-a-Tampa cigars to relieve stress. I seek out urban forests and climb trees.
Both these habits mark you as suspect in truly discriminating, high-class societies.
* * *
We are all living in the new south. To know the new south, you need to understand the old south and how George Wallace was the transition between the two. You also must know that I met Wallace in 1981, when, semi-retired and in a wheelchair, he visited my fourth grade class.
I’d only been going to Montgomery School for a month. Wanna learn real-life politics? Be a eleven-year old who gets his first pair of glasses on his first day at a new school. There’s something about shy unknowns with thick glasses—especially among kids who’ve known each other since kindergarten—that slots one as suspect.
Without even knowing what I’d done, I’d become the outsider. The other.
On the second day of school, I walked into the bathroom to find Frank Segrest and his friends waiting for me.
Frank was a big-gutted bully—one of those kids who found fat years before the rest of us. Frank didn’t care much for school and it was rumored that one of his relatives had shot and killed Sammy Younge in Tuskegee back in the ’60s. I didn’t know who Sammy Younge was, but I understood the word ‘”killed.”
I forget what Frank said to insult me in that bathroom, but I slugged him hard in the stomach. I instinctively knew the first rule of politics: Fight or be killed. That day I learned another political rule: it is worthless to slug a fat bully in the gut. The belly just bean-bags and wastes the effort of any punch.
Frank beat the shit out of me while his friends held me down.
Over the next several weeks I fought with Frank and his friends every day. I didn’t win the fights—one against three or four doesn’t work—but instead of giving in I simply kept fighting and losing. This set a pattern for my school years (although I would get better at the fighting).
One day our teacher, Mrs. McVay, noticed that I was having trouble fitting in, so she began giving me little suggestions every morning: “Why don’t you play with so and so today?” or “People like a kid who smiles.” Her worst attempt came when she asked Frank Segrest to be my partner during art one day. Frank and I were polite, but he gripped those paints way too hard and kept smashing the bristles against paper in red and blue explosions. “The pink’s for you,” he whispered, spilling the little pink vial so it flooded across my lead-pencil hills and valleys.
It was in fourth grade that I fell in love with climbing trees. I’d get home from school, grab my .22 caliber rifle, climb a tree, and pretend that passing deer were Frank Segrest.
* * *
As I climb ten feet up into an oak tree on this Minnesota nature preserve, I realize the smell of the forest here isn’t right, that northern forests lack the deep vegetation decay of woods down south. Still, being among the trees relaxes me after the job interview hell. I close my eyes and forget about the preserve being so tiny—barely a hundred acres of young scrub trees hemmed in by highways, train tracks, and suburban chemical-treated lawns. Instead, as the tree and leaf smells blow with the wind, I imagine that I’m back home in the deepness of the Alabama woods.
That’s when my neck begins to itch. At first I ignore the itch—it’s a mind trick, forget the sensation—but I finally reach back and pull a tick from under my collar. It’s little legs move like rowboat oars, and its body is so thin it barely pops as I squish it between finger and thumb.
That’s when I see two ticks on my shirt sleeve, and several more on my kaki pants. I’m covered in ticks, crawling in ticks—ticks seeking a way past my clothes to the bare skin below. I jump and swear, one hand gripping a small branch as the other one swats the ticks away.
If I’d been thinking, I would have calmly climbed down from that tree before stripping off my clothes and searching for ticks. But who truly thinks when they’re in a tick nest?
So it is that my pants are down to my ankles when I notice a man and woman power walking up the asphalt path behind me.
Three things happen, real quick like:
1) My free hand grabs my pants to pull them back up.
2) My tree-branch-grabbing hand pushes its branch a little too hard.
3) The branch cracks like thunder.
I spiral down the tree trunk, my tree-grabbing-arm reaching out as if we’re in some Olympic gymnastic routine. I take out three minor branches, one medium branch, and two vines on the way to the ground, where I lay back down in the dirt, legs straddling that tree like I’m looking for love in all the wrong places.
The power-walking couple eye me with terror as they quickly trot on by.
* * *
A few months into fourth grade Mrs. McVay announced that governor George C. Wallace would be visiting our class. Like all politicians, Mrs. McVay must have known someone who knew someone who knew the governor. And in one of her special attempts to help me fit in, she asked if I’d draw the state seal to decorate our classroom wall for the governor’s visit.
“You have talent as an artist,” she said, handing me her copy of the History of Alabama with its giant state seal on the back cover.
I came home that afternoon with a piece of posterboard and a copy of the seal. I told my mom that the governor was coming to visit our class and I had to draw the state seal.
“Which governor?” she asked.
I hadn’t known there was more than one. “THE governor,” I insisted. “The one in the wheelchair.”
Mom explained that George Wallace used to be the governor—and that if the world was truly just, he would never be governor again. I asked her why she didn’t like Wallace and she said he had done a lot to embarrass the state. Still, she said it was an honor to draw the state seal for his visit to my classroom. She told me to place one of her big cake pans on the posterboard and trace around it to make the seal’s giant circle. I then drew the shape of Alabama inside the circle, then squiggled in the curves and bends of the state’s principal rivers—the Alabama, Tallapoosa, and Coosa—along with others rivers I didn’t know.
The next day Mrs. McVay hung my seal on the wall and said it was perfect. None of the other kids noticed—except for Frank, who said it looked like shit.
* * *
As I said, the power-walking man and woman walked right on by me with a look in their eyes like I’d been caught raping that oak tree.
Funny things jump to mind when you’re hurt. Despite the scraps and blood and the shirt ripped to hell and the pants half off my body, I’m amazed at how color-coordinated the man and woman are. In addition, they line up. He’s a foot taller than her, but the red and black waves of his spandex align perfectly with the waves of her spandex. I can’t imagine how they keep that alignment going—especially since they’re almost running now to get away from me and my tree.
When I can’t see them anymore, I slowly stand up.
Nothing feels broken. My right leg and side are bleeding, but not too badly. I shake the remaining ticks from my clothes and redress. My pants are also ripped and half the buttons of my shirt are gone. I look around for the tie I wore to the interview and finally see it up on the tree branch I fell from. I leave it for the birds.
After dressing, I limp in a straight line to my car. That’s when I discover that the asphalt path curves around, because after a few hundred feet here come Mr. and Mrs. Power Walker. Their faces scrunch into masks of forced ignoring. The woman has her hand in her little hip pouch. I imagine she’s gripping some pepper spray in case she has to spray all my little orifices.
As they pass, I smile, nod, and go all comforting on my body language. “How ya’ll doing?” I ask.
If I’d had on a big old cowboy hat and a hayseed in my mouth, I doubt I could have seemed like any more of a redneck to them.
* * *
I didn’t know George Wallace on a personal level. My Aunt Katie, she knew him—knew him in his prime as the short, political firebrand with an oily pompadour which was never in style and a curling lip for words that’d jump crowd to screams at all hours of the night.
Katie Mae Crow was an amazing woman. Born in 1914, she was a dwarf at a time in the south when children with disabilities were assumed to be that way because the parents had sinned. Katie stood four feet three. No one knows why she came out that way, but her mom had a case of german measles when she was three months pregnant with Katie and our family always figured that’s what caused it. As for other people, we figured they could take their ideas on sin and shove it up their preacher’s rear end.
After graduating high school Katie saved some money and built a Texaco gas station a hundred yards in front of her parent’s house on the old Troy highway. Back then that was outside Montgomery and, before the interstate system, everyone driving south had to pass her station. She did everything at the station—pump the gas, check the oil, clean the windshields—all with the help of a wooden step she kept by the gas pumps. When a car pulled up, she’d grab that step, climb on up, and go to work.
Katie ran her store for 40 years. When my mom was young, she and her cousin would sneak up to the store whenever their Grandmama relieved Aunt Katie for dinner. See, Katie wouldn’t give them anything to eat or drink unless the girls worked for it—earned their own way, as Aunt Katie said—but soon as Katie went home to eat Grandmama would give the girls all the candy and cokes they could want.
My mom assumes Aunt Katie knew this but simply looked the other way.
The road by Katie’s store was popular. A whole lineup of now-classic country singers stopped at her store on the way to and from WBAM, a nearby radio station which broadcast all over southeast. The Big BAM show brought in legends like Hank Williams, Conway Twinty, and Loretta Lynn. Since Katie knew the owners of WBAM, she always got backstage passes and met the stars.
But no matter how much Katie liked those music stars, the minute they stepped in her store they did things her way. And if anyone challenged her, she simply say, “You can kiss my Aunt Tilley.”
According to my mom, one hot, humid day George Wallace stopped by her store to get a coke. This was before he became governor and it must have been really hot, because he came into Katie’s store with his shirt unbuttoned. Respectable men did not leave their shirt unbuttoned, so Katie grabbed her broom and chased him out.
Kiss her Aunt Tilley indeed.
Katie so impressed Wallace that from then on he stopped at Katie’s store anytime he drove the Troy Highway. Katie didn’t give a rip who he was—even after he became governor—and Wallace loved that. He’d buy a coke, some gas, and give her a hard time by trying to help her out in her store. Katie didn’t let anyone help her and she would grab her broom and shake it at him like he was about to get popped.
Wallace loved that, too.
* * *
Two days after I drew the state seal for my classroom, George Wallace wheeled by to speak to us. When the Mrs. McVay introduced him as the governor, he corrected her by saying he wasn’t the governor anymore. “But we might do something about that,” he said, laughing.
I don’t remember what else Wallace talked about, and I’m also sure all the other kids were the same way. This was the first time we’d seen a man who traveled with a group of people in tow—hell, we didn’t even know the word for entourage. So Wallace talked and we listened politely and we stared at his wheelchair and then he was done speaking.
Mrs. McVay asked if we had any questions. One of the smart girls popped off with some insightful question that no one cared about, and Wallace answered her by saying how intelligent she was to ask such a question. Then I raised my hand.
“Yes, young man?” Wallace asked.
“My mom says you know my aunt,” I said. Behind me, Frank Segrest snorted.
“Who is your aunt, young man?”
“Aunt Katie . . . Crow. She owned a gas station on the Troy Highway.”
Ever the politician, George Wallace’s eye flickered to the side as if reading an old list of names. “Yes,” he said, smiling. “Katie Crow is an amazing woman.”
He said to say hi to her. After answering a few more questions, he left.
My connection with Wallace didn’t impress Frank and his friends. In fact, I distinctly remember getting beat up—yet again—at recess that very day.
* * *
Fourth graders get so excited about meeting those whom others consider important. It is only later that we understand the whys.
Today I can’t remember Wallace’s face—from his visit, I mean. I remember his wheelchair. I remember his attendants. But my images of his face are from historic newsreels. I still see his defiant look as he stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama, and my mind pastes this face over his wheelchaired body in my classroom.
As I grew up, I learned why my parents were not fans of George Wallace. My mom often said that Wallace lacked a moral compass and that even his famous repentance for all his past racial sins was merely a calculated political move. I suspect this may be true, even through the Shakespearean image of Wallace finally realizing his fatal flaw is hard to let go of.
In his younger years, Wallace was a relatively progressive politician. In fact, when he served as a circuit judge he was such a racial moderate that a young black lawyer named Fred Gray (who later became well-known for defending Rosa Parks) said that he had practiced in many courts but had never been treated more fairly by a judge.1
Of course, Gray would have many years to change that view of Wallace. While Wallace truly cared for the “little man,” he cared even more for power. And when he found out that racially moderate views couldn’t get him elected governor of Alabama, he embraced the worst of humanity.
Wallace’s life is often called a Greek tragedy: Little man longs for power. Little man begins to get power with progressive views. Little man loses a race for governor because white voters feel he won’t maintain segregation, so little man swears to never be “out niggered again” and proceeds to win power and national attention. Big man is then punished for his sins and spends the rest of his life seeking repentence.
In Spike Lee’s documentary Four Little Girls, there is a poignant scene where Lee interviews Wallace a few years before his death. Wallace is so enfeebled by age and from the bullets he took that Lee has to provide subtitles for his slurred speech.
The most embarrassing scene in the documentary happens when Wallace swears that in his heart he has never hated anyone because of their race. To prove this, Wallace describes his black personal assistant, Eddie Holcey, as his best friend. “I couldn’t live without him,” Wallace says as he forces Holcey to stand before the camera.
Whether Wallace was ignorant, insensitive, or just a son-of-a-bitch toward Holcey’s feelings about being put on display like that, I can’t say. But I can read Holcey’s face. Even though he remains stoic throughout the difficult situation, it is easy to see that he is both embarrassed and horrified by Wallace using him like that.
Holcey’s look is the exact-same one I got from those power-walking people when I fell half-naked from that tree right before their eyes.
* * *
I’m just getting into my car to leave the nature preserve when a police cruiser pulls into the parking lot. I guess the power walkers had a cellphone and called the police.
Luckily, all he can see of me through the car window is my upper torso and head. He nods at me, then gets out of his squad car and goes looking for the people who called 911.
I don’t wait around.
On the drive back to Minneapolis, my right leg is so stiff that I have to ease my other leg onto the gas pedal.
Maybe I’m naive, but if I saw someone fall from a tree the least I would do is ask if they were okay. If they were up to no good, then I’d call the police. But I’d at least ask if they were okay.
* * *
The old south passed away not long after I started fourth grade. Perhaps the change came when George Wallace told a group of black leaders in 1982, “We thought [segregation] was in the best interests of all concerned. We were mistaken. The Old South is gone.” 2
That was the same year Wallace was reelected governor for a fourth and final time. He won the election with a coalition represented by blacks, organized labor and people wanting to fix public education.
Now his south is totally gone.
You often hear the term ‘new south’ bandied around whenever Washington and New York pundits grouse about the latest progressive politician to get elected in what they see as the land of Bubba. To them, the term means a southern politician who isn’t wrapped in the robes of demagoguery, a politician who doesn’t bait the races or thump his little bible in red-faced indignation. A new south politician is Bill Clinton crying over the past sins of the country, or Jimmy Carter building a habitat for humanity.
The irony is that everywhere you look in today’s America, politicians sprout the policies of George Wallace. As Stephen Lester proves so eloquently in George Wallace, American Populist, even while America said it detested Wallace’s ways, the country ended up embracing his message. Following the assassination attempt that left Wallace in a wheelchair for life, the Republican party developed its southern strategy which propelled everyone from Reagan to the two Bushs into the presidency. The strategy they stole from Wallace, and which the Democrats under Clinton then stole from them, is rather simple:
1) Play on people’s hate and their fear of social change;
2) Play different groups of people off of each other (Pro-choice versus anti-abortion groups, or the old standby of white versus black);
3) Blame all of the society’s ills on a big government or liberals or anyone that interferes in other people’s lives.
According to Cynthia Tucker, the opinions editor of the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, to keep the support of white people in the south, “the Republicans have believed it necessary to play the race card, whipping up fears of black crime (Willie Horton), portraying the welfare system as overwhelmingly benefiting blacks (the majority of recipients are actually white), rejecting affirmative action, downplaying the need for diversity and generally ignoring the aspirations of African-Americans. They call that the ‘Southern strategy.'” 3
Wallace also pioneered the practice of politcal doublespeak on sensitive social matters in this country. Wallace didn’t say he wanted segregation to keep black people down; he simply said he didn’t want the federal government interfering in Alabama’s affairs. When white people in Selma didn’t want blacks registering to vote or eating in their restaurants, Wallace said he was simply allowing people to make their own choices about whom they associated with.
As Joe Azbell, Wallace’s chief speech writer on his national campaigns, said, “(Wallace) knew where to find the itch, and he scratched it.” 4 Do you think it is a coincidence that every president elected since Wallace was shot has either been a southerner (Clinton, Carter, and the second Bush), pretended to be a southerner (the first Bush), or adopted the folksy ways of southerners (Reagan).
What none of them took—with the possible exception of Clinton—was the true caring that Wallace had for people. Yes, Wallace manipulated people. Yes, he used them. Yes, he lied and race-baited and did harm to people both black and white. But he did care about the little man in a way that politicians today forget to do. This is because Wallace grew up poor in a poor state. He hated people with money and good-old-boy connections. He wanted power but, unlike so many of today’s politicians, he didn’t get it handed to him.
Say what you will about Wallace, but he remembered my Aunt Katie. And as he sat in his wheelchair, I wonder if he ever thought about that midget woman who ran that filling station and how she never took nothing from no one. And don’t let the words disguise the truth there—”midget woman” is exactly how Wallace would have described my aunt.
But I still think he did right by her.
He just didn’t do right by Alabama.
* * *
Frank Segrest taught me early on about school-yard politics. Frank didn’t beat me up because he hated me; Frank didn’t taunt and scream names at me because I was a threat to everything he stood for a person.
Frank beat me up because I was available to be beat up.
The American political system has long used different groups and issues to divide people into an “us” and a “them.” The reason America remains, and has always been, a two-political-party country is that we prefer our beliefs as simple duality—black white, good bad, us them. On every issue from slavery to communism to abortion, Americans have prefered to fight rather than to compromise. Sometimes, as with slavery, this is the correct choice. Sometimes, as with the issue of abortion, the American political path makes it too easy to tear each other apart and never resolve anything.
The truth about Wallace using race as a dividing tool is that he was simply being true to the nature of the American political system.
Being on the receiving end of school-yard politics is shit. I, along with every other recipient of a bully’s pain, take a certain joy when the bully finally gets theirs. I heard a friend talking about Frank the other day—Frank is now even fatter, along with being divorced and stuck in a dead-end job. I won’t lie and say I didn’t smile at that.
When Wallace was shot, how many people saw that as just payment for his sins?
But there is also something sad about Wallace. The other virulent race-baiters from those days, like Senator Strom Thurmond, have been rehabilitated and accepted. Not George Wallace. Even though he spoke at black churches and NAACP meetings in the two decades leading up to his death, seeking to bury his past with Christian atonement, people still saw him as he had been during the Civil Rights era. The fact that Wallace said he didn’t want to meet his maker with his sins unforgiven just didn’t matter to most people.
As I drive back to Minneapolis—an Alabama boy with skinned legs and a bruised body—I realize that there is no forgiveness in American politics. You either win or lose. Nothing more. Ever the politcal man, Wallace understood this. In the end, this fact makes his attempts at atonement so much the sadder. He knew he had lost, and he knew there could be no forgiveness in losing.
After all, Americans never forgive a loser—even one who deserved to lose.