Remembering George Wallace

Today is the 50th anniversary of George Wallace’s infamous doorway stand. On June 11, 1963, the Alabama governor defiantly stood in the doorway of the Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama in an effort to block the integration of the school when Vivian Jones and James Hood attempted to register as the school’s first African American students. President John F. Kennedy had to federalize the Alabama National Guard to force the issue because Wallace at first refused the request of the Deputy Attorney General of the United States to step aside and allow the two to enter. Though he finally did remove himself when, under order of the President, General Henry Graham politely confronted him, Wallace was making good on the promise he had made when he took office earlier that year to maintain the ways of the Jim Crowe south. “I say segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” he famously quipped.
That part of Wallace’s story is well known and oft repeated. It remains one of the central images of a dark period in American history. What is less well-known (and what I, admittedly, did not know until very recently), is that Wallace underwent a dramatic change of heart later in life. He eventually came to repudiate his racist views. In March of 1995, for example, Wallace attended an event at St. Jude’s church in Montgomery to mark the 30th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march. Joining hands and voice with 200 black southerners, Wallace sang “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the very civil rights movement he once tried to block. These and other actions seem to indicate a significant and sincere change. Like I said in Sunday’s sermon, at the heart of the gospel is the call to repent, and what the word “repent” in the original Greek literally means is “to change one’s mind.”
Yesterday my friend Tom and I were discussing an important question. Is there any limit to the Holy Spirit’s ability to change a person? We agreed that the answer is both no and yes. No, the Spirit is not limited. The God who can part the Red Sea and raise the dead back to life is more than capable of changing any human being – even an ardent segregationist who at one time was not adverse to the use of high pressure hoses and police dogs to impose his views. And yet at the same time, the Holy Spirit will not automatically override our sinfulness. He will not change us without our active and willing participation. Repentance necessarily involves an act of our will. We must knowingly allow Him to turn us in a new direction, and to the extent that we willingly refuse His movement we can limit what the Holy Spirit does to us and for us. Just like Wallace stood in the doorway and tried to block the advance of justice, we can stand at the door of spirits and stubbornly block God’s Spirit.
It has been suggested that Wallace’s change began in 1972, when an assassination attempt paralyzed him from the waist down and left him wracked with pain for the rest of his life. Perhaps somehow in the struggle of confronting his own pain Wallace was finally able to identify with the pain of black Americans in their struggle for justice. I don’t know his story well enough to say whether that is true or not. I can say that true repentance can only happen when we recognize our own brokenness. So long as we are self-assured and confident in ourselves, we will have little need to reach out for God’s help. But when we confront (or are confronted by) our incompleteness and sinfulness – it is then and only than that we are ready to receive the Holy Spirit of God.
Fifty years after that day in Tuscaloosa the struggle for racial reconciliation goes on. We’ve come a long way, but we aren’t there yet. Here’s the question we must each ask ourselves today: with whom do I need to reconcile? And I am willing enough to admit my own brokenness for that to happen? Know that the moment we are able to answer that question in the affirmative and can move ourselves out of the way, God stands ready to move.