Wallace, once No. 1 segregationist, now talks language many blacks like

Viewed from tiny wooden back porches, rural and urban side streets, plush offices and campaign rallies, the George Wallace phenomenon becomes a bit clearer.

One begins to see how he narrowly won the Democratic runoff for governor this week with crucial black support, how he got the political juices flowing again among his bedrock white supporters, and why among nearly half of the voters who opposed him, many are now in a quandary.

The three-time governor, who could be on his way to a fourth victory in November, may be best known nationally for his strong segregationist remarks and stands in the 1960s. But to the estimated one-third of the black voters who backed him, he was never as anti-black as he seemed.

Unemployed black carpenter William Scott of Tuskegee, who backs Mr. Wallace, is more hopeful that Wallace will bring new jobs to the state than he is worried about the man's past racial remarks.

Standing on a small, wooden back porch he was painting for a friend, Mr. Scott said: ''I don't believe half the things they say about him. All of us have our faults.''

L. C. Brewington, a black Montgomery taxi driver who used to be a waiter and has served food to Wallace, stops on a Montgomery side street and says Wallace has ''changed.'' Richard Nelson, a black who has painted Wallace's home, contends Wallace never was a racist as he seemed, that his talking like one was ''the trend - the way to get elected'' in the past.

Even Wallace's nationally publicized stand in the schoolhouse door (at the University of Alabama in 1963) to symbolically oppose integration was not all bad because it prevented bloodshed, says Marion Smiley, a black former official at a black college in Alabama. Voters should not have ''vengeance'' against a man's past, he says.

Wallace, crippled by a would-be assassin's bullet in 1972, says he has changed. On election night, after being wheeled up a ramp to the platform in his jammed campaign headquarters here, he said he was ''humbled'' by his win. He thanked ''the broad mass of Alabama citizens, black and white'' who gave him a 51-to-49 percent victory over Lt. Gov. George McMillan. At this writing, McMillan had not conceded.

But the audience was mostly white of all ages. In the warm hall, his supporters fanned themselves with blue placards emblazoned with their man's name in phosphorescent orange. Then they waved them overhead as Wallace speaks. They cheered, interrupting him time and again.

They're with him; glad to see him doing his thing again, ready to back him again. Wallace touched his usual themes, except race - the ones that have whipped up support for him in the past. He railed against the rich and the ''moneyed interests,'' calling for jobs and food for the hungry. Often at such appearances, country singer Tammy Wynette preceeds him on the stump, singing ''Stand by Your Man.''

His supporters are ready to do just that in November.

''He's for the working people,'' says Andrew J. Kemp, a state highway engineer. ''He's a Christian. I believe he'll do the right thing for Alabama,'' says a woman who has known Wallace for years as a friend.

Bus driver Wilbon Gardner, president of his AFL-CIO local, says proudly of Wallace: ''He has created many jobs in the state of Alabama. He is known worldwide.''

Wallace, with less than 1 percent of the vote still to count at this writing, had carried all but a dozen counties. The precise black support had not been analyzed yet, but the Montgomery Advertiser was estimating it at about one-third. Blacks comprise about 20 percent of the Alabama voters.

Ora Askew, a black woman in Tuskegee, joined the majority of blacks opposing Wallace, saying she ''can't forget'' his past.

Some Democrats, including Mary Upchurch of Montgomery, a white McMillan supporter, now plan to back Republican candidate Emory Folmar, the white mayor of Montgomery. But ''progressive'' anti-Wallace voters are in the uncomfortable position of having only the strongly conservative mayor as an alternative. In another race, Oscar W. Adams, a black, won the Democratic nomination for the seat he was appointed to earlier on the Alabama Supreme Court. He could become the first black elected to a statewide office in Alabama in this century.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.