Today would have been the 98th birthday of former Alabama Governor George Wallace. Wallace was the face of Jim Crow,segregation, and the angry resentment of he civil rights movement in the 1960’s. In 1963, during his first inauguration speech he famously said, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Just a few weeks later he made his famous “stand in the schoolhouse door” while trying to deny entrance to the University of Alabama to two African American students. He supported the actions of the infamous Bull Connor in Birmingham, who used fire hoses and attack dogs on children less than ten years old who were simply marching. He instructed Alabama state troopers to use force that included billy clubs to stop those who intended to march from Selma to the capital of Montgomery of 1965.
Oh yes, if you know about the struggle for civil rights in this country, you know about George Wallace.
Here is the thing that not everyone knows: He changed. He apologized. He spent the last decade of his life as an advocate for the rights of African Americans. In his last term as Governor appointing African Americans to high ranking state officials. At the thirtieth anniversary of the march on Selma, he came and spoke to the assembled marchers. He said he was wrong, sorry, and asked them to forgive. Most of them did. When he died, his funeral was attended by many African Americans. The service was performed by an African American pastor. Wallace was a World War Two veteran, his casket flag was folded by two African American Soldiers.
George Wallace has long been one of the leading symbols of the segregationist south. Perhaps he should be the symbol of something else: healing.
If George Wallace can have his heart and mind changed, can’t anyone?
When we fast forward a half century, we see the tide of hate and bigotry rising in this country again. The vast majority of us are appalled and want to stop it immediately. We look at the improvements that have been made in the areas of equality, tolerance, and fairness in this country and fear we may be going backwards. We know the hard costs that our progress came with, and don’t want it to be all for nothing.
In the noble effort to defend the people and the principals of this country, many are fighting back. They are showing up to the white supremacist, KKK, and neo nazi rallies to make it be known loud and clear that hate will not be tolerated. Their hearts are big, and their wills are strong. They are to be commended for their bravery in jumping into the fight.
But, will it work?
Can the hatred that has surfaced in the last few months be reversed with screaming?
I don’t think so. It is going to take brains too
In the effort to push back the tide of hate that has risen in 2017, we should study the effective strategies of movements in the past. We need to think about how ardent segregationists like George Wallace were changed. Sometimes we need to study the success of history, so we can repeat them.
Here are a few thought about how we can fight hate smarter, not harder.
1. LEARN ABOUT THE PEOPLE YOU ARE TRYING TO CHANGE: In his famous self help book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, author Steven Covey teaches, “Seek to understand, then be understood.’ These people, obviously, aren’t like you and me. I grew up in a village of love and caring. I had a solid family, parents who took a huge interest in my development, and an extended family that was always supporting me. I had great teachers and went to church. I was accepted at school, and played on every team I could. I never lacked for a sense of community. If anything, I sometimes felt I had too many people worrying about me.
Now think about the people you see marching with the tiki torches and chanting the nazi slogans. Do you think their childhood was like mine? Do you think their parents were investing tons of time in them teaching them the values of love and tolerance? Do you think they had a good experience in school and felt a network of support in their adolescence? Do you think they had a childhood filled with love and teaching? Maybe, but I tend to think not. When I look at those young marchers, I think something must have gone terribly wrong to lead them to this place. That does not condone or forgive them, but it should be understood before trying to change them.
2. TEACH AND EXPOSE:
As a history teacher, when I see these marches on t.v., I wonder if these young men really understand what they are representing. Did they pay attention in their history class? Do they really know who the nazis were and what they did? Part of the change process that is going to have to take place is putting a higher priority on teaching true history in this country. One of the challenges to that is the abundance of conspiracy and alternate stories that fill the internet. This needs to happen not just at schools, but in arts and families as well. Those marchers were probably taught history, but not truth.
3. RE THINK PUNISHMENT:
In my class, I’ve had a few instances where students have either written swastikas on papers or I’ve seen them on their notebooks. I have immediately referred this to the higher ups, and those students have probably received some form of punishment like a suspension. I’ve been thinking of what should happen: education and reform. I’m going to discuss with our principal trying to come up with a punishment that teaches, and hopefully changes young minds in these scenarios. The student should have to do things like learn about the holocaust, perhaps talk to a victim of a hate crime, and receive ample discussion about counseling about why what they have done is wrong. When we only punish the student, we are probably only pushing them further and further from the place we want them to be.
When someone commits a hate crime, they will fall into the hands of our criminal justice system. If the crime is short of murder, they will also likely be free members of society at some point in time. The question needs to be asked, “Are we turning this person into more or less of a bigot during the time we have their ears and attention.” “Are we teaching them?” “Are we working on fixing the problem, or just punishing them?” Just as I think we need to rethink how we fight bigotry in schools, we need to rethink how we do it in adult criminals as well.
4. BE READY FOR A LONG FIGHT:
The problems of racial tension that we see amongst us today did not just magically appear overnight, nor will they instantly leave us. The shocking images of Charlottesville and elsewhere have been developing over a very long period of time. People who truly want to end this are going to have to roll up their sleeves, and bring their gloves, hard hat, and lunchbox. It is going to be hard, but then again most of the worthwhile stuff is.
Look at the famous picture below. It was taken in 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The young African American girl is 14 years old. Hazel Bryan, the girl yelling at her from behind is 15. They are both still alive. As you can see in the picture, Bryan is being joined and supported by many parents nearby. The people in this picture raised children and grandchildren. Do you think they have been teaching them to love all of God’s children? No…..this knot has been being tied for a long time, and will take many years to unwind.
There was no southern governor in the 1960’s that was more prominently opposed to the civil rights movement. He was nasty, mean, and evil……….but he changed.
If George Wallace can be reformed, so can anyone. On this, the anniversary of his birth, let us think about not only the redemption of people like George Wallace, but better strategies on how to lead them there.