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Commentary: Stains left by George Wallace haven't faded

The death last month of Nicholas Katzenbach, a key member of both the John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations during the 1960s, brought fresh to mind two moments in my early career as a young reporter covering the civil rights struggle in the South.

The first was on a June morning in 1963 in Tuscaloosa when Gov. George Wallace placed himself defiantly in the doorway of the University of Alabama, determined to block the enrollment of two young black students.

Dispatched by President Kennedy to enforce their admittance, Deputy Attorney General Katzenbach confronted Wallace, towering over the diminutive but pugnacious governor and ignoring his segregationist rant.

I was in a crowd of 100 or more journalists observing and filming the event — many of them representing foreign news outlets. And I could not help but feel pride at the American willingness to act out that morality play in the full view of the world.

After a standoff of several hours, Wallace yielded. Katzenbach accompanied the two youngsters inside to register, and the situation was resolved without the need for intervention by the federalized National Guard.

The next memorable event was 23 days later when, curious to learn how that affair had played in the Alabama countryside, I accompanied the governor’s party to the July Fourth celebration in a small rural community.

What I got was a demonstration of earthy political dexterity.

On a flag-bedecked platform, with fireworks arcing overhead and patriotic band music playing in the background, Wallace yanked off his necktie, shed his coat and gesticulating, perspiring, he worked the crowd of several hundred townsfolk.

He wasn’t Mister Governor. He was plain George — one of them.

“Come visit me at the mansion,” he cried, inviting them all. “We got plenty of room.”

The party went well into the night. With more rockets and substantial consumption of beverages. It was past midnight when the party wound down.

I walked with Wallace to the hangar, a large Quonset hut at the little country airstrip, where his plane was waiting to take him to Montgomery — venerated by Alabamans as the location of the first Confederate Capitol.

Before boarding, he needed a comfort stop. That didn’t interrupt his orating.

“People say I’m against the nigra,” he called out, his voice from the stall resonating inside the metal building. “But they’re wrong. I got nothin’ against the nigra. Nigra’s all right as long as you keep him scared.”

In 1972, while Wallace was campaigning for the U.S. presidency, a would-be assassin’s bullet left him permanently incontinent and in a wheelchair.

He afterward claimed to have been “born again” and disavowed his former racist views.

Some may have taken him at his word.

But for myself, I was never persuaded that time and a gunshot had transformed a man capable of uttering the terrible words I’d heard on that July night nine years before.

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