As we drove into the cemetery, I could see through the windshield of my brother’s car the flagpole at the entrance, and the flag itself–flying at half-mast.”What a nice thing to do for Mom,” I thought.
But at the same moment I realized that this demonstration of respect and mourning was not for my mother. She was loved and well thought of in the little town of Andalusia, Ala., but the lowered flag was not for her.
It was for the governor.
Mom died 10 years ago, in the early morning of Sept. 14, 1998. George Wallace had died the day before.
They were buried on the same day–Sept. 16.
That night, after all but our (now-smaller) nuclear family had left my father’s house, we gathered to watch the day’s news reports from the Montgomery television station. We saw images of throngs of people gathered in the city streets to watch the governor’s funeral procession pass by.
In Andalusia the First Baptist Church had been full for my mother’s service. But it was nothing like the turnout some 90 miles north.
For some 10 years now I have pondered the meaning of this matrix. My mother–a stay-at-home mom, whose biggest claim to fame was singing the occasional solo in the church choir’s annual Christmas cantata–was the most influential person on my life at home. George Wallace, who will be remembered most for declaring, upon his inauguration as governor, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” was arguably the most influential person in my life outside my home.
And they were buried on the same day.
That statement about Wallace is a pretty strong one. To be sure, there were schoolteachers, church leaders and even friends who impacted my life in substantial ways as I grew up. But no person shaped the environment of the state of Alabama during my lifetime as did that pugnacious and ambitious man in the capitol. I was raised in a state defined by racism and–even as a child–I knew it. I could feel it.
And so when the time came to move away from Alabama back in 1979, I was glad, glad to leave it all behind.
But, of course, I didn’t leave it at all.
I no more left behind the effects of the state that shaped me than I could abandon the lessons of my Sunday school teacher mother. In the midst of an environment that urged me to live in fear of “the other,” my mother taught me by example about acceptance and love for every person.
I like to believe my mother’s influence was the greater of the two. But early on in the 15-year sojourn away from my home state, I came to understand something about the path to self-discovery. A person must come to accept and embrace where he has come from if he is ever to fully accept–and understand–himself.
That certainly doesn’t require a backward gaze through hazy, rose-colored glasses. To the contrary, it means taking a hard, honest, clear look at where one has come from, remembering the sun-drenched moments as well as the shadows one might prefer to ignore. We are, each of us, pieced together by the forces of cowardice as much as by heroism.
I have come to recognize that those same forces shaped both George Corley Wallace and Betty White Foster and, as a result, each carried the many, varied shades of character within them.
We all do.
I hope my two sons, products also of the Heart of Dixie, will come to understand this as well; that they will recognize and accept the dark as well as the light within themselves–and that within their father too.
I moved back to Alabama in 1995 and found many things to be much as they had been when I left. There had been improvements in the racial climate, but fear remained the primary political tool of ambitious public figures.
Now I have once more left the soil of my deepest roots, moving again northward. This time I go with more sadness than relief. I’ve made no effort this time to shake from my shoes the dust of my home state. Instead I am trying to apply the lessons I’ve learned over the past years both at home and away, to seek to make a difference in the place where I live; to embrace the dark and light within myself, remaining open to what I too may yet become.
Nick Foster recently moved from Alabama to Bloomington, Ind., where he is executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Morgan County.