In the spring of 1972, my best friend David and I spent plenty of hours on the back parking lot of our high school, White Station High School in Memphis, Tennessee, smoking cigarettes, listening to Joni Mitchell and wondering how we would manage to live without each other next year.
David was a soft-spoken radical, an intellectual who would leave in the fall for Princeton University, never to return to Memphis. Our friendship was born the previous summer when we attended a summer school program at a local liberal arts college where students from black high schools were brought together with students from white high schools to discuss issues of race and class consciousness. One of our teachers was Rev. James Lawson, a sidekick of Dr. King, a famous disciple of non-violence who at that time pastored a local congregation.
Firmly ensconced, taught and bred in the all-white suburbs of east Memphis, David and I ventured out that summer to ball games at Manassas High School in one of the city's many black sections, attended church with our friend Viola who stomped and sweated when the sermon got feverish, and discovered soul food in the back alleys of downtown's deserted streets.
Our pent-up shame was immense; our hope for the future was fervent; our confusion over the society we had been raised in was sometimes overwhelming. We believed the world as we knew it was on the brink of change.
Perhaps that explains why we did what we did the afternoon George Wallace was shot.
I remembered that distant afternoon a few nights ago, while watching a PBS documentary, "Settin' the Woods on Fire," a sort of tribute to the convoluted memory of the former Alabama governor who established his career by embracing the most rabid and vocal brand of racism. Wallace courted men and women who wanted to keep blacks "in their place" by spitting the word nigger in stump speeches, by standing in the door of the University of Alabama to block the entrance of its first black students, by ordering state troopers to blockade the march across the bridge at Selma. The documentary hypothesized that Wallace's racist posturing was merely a well-crafted political maneuver, but did not deny the disastrous, often deadly results, of many of his actions.
From my vantage point as a white teenager in Memphis, I had seen, on local television broadcasts, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. murdered while stretching his legs on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, presumably by a white racist. A close-by neighbor of mine and the father of a boy who attended my high school was Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb, who had openly decried Dr. King's efforts on the behalf of black sanitation workers who went on strike and took to the streets wearing signs around their necks, declaring "I AM A MAN." Henry Loeb was a kind of man far more familiar to me than those demonstrators, a man like my father, a man a little like George Wallace.
David and I had watched our mothers cry that same summer when Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed. When Dr. King's body was laid to rest, my mother wept openly: "He was a man of God ... Why did they have to kill him?" But on the streets of Memphis, and on Gov. Wallace's 1972 campaign trail, which inexplicably was still going strong, grief was not the most outspoken emotion -- hatred was.
So when David and I heard on the car radio, one afternoon after school, that George Wallace had been shot, we didn't know what to do. I was flush with a mixed sense of chaos and sick revenge. I didn't think clearly enough to understand that his words and deeds had finally come back to haunt him -- and to exact an exorbitant price.
We were 17, and we had seen and heard of too much killing and bloodshed. And now an enemy of ours had fallen.
David pulled out of the parking lot and we headed down Shady Grove Road toward home. A woman stood hunched over, pulling weeds in the culvert next to the road. We pulled up beside her. David shouted, "George Wallace has been shot!" She turned around, her face twisted with confusion. "What'd you say?" she asked, her hand flying up to her neck.
"George Wallace has been shot!" we screamed and pulled away, spattering gravel in our wake.
Our hysteria grew as we pulled over and announced the news to other unsuspecting souls, innocently watering the hedge on a sunny spring afternoon, out for a walk, returning from the mailbox.
We pulled into my driveway, exhausted and filled with the nervous energy that comes with doing something you know is wrong. The radio droned on, replaying the rat-a-tat of five bullets over and over. George Wallace was not dead, not yet, but he was slain. We could not contain our perverse giddiness or our grief.