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From racism to reconciliation

IN many ways the political odyssey of George Corley Wallace this past quarter-century reflected the challenges of change in the country he aspired to lead as president. For both the nation and Alabama's Governor Wallace, who announced his retirement from public life this week, the years since the early 1960s have been marked by turbulence and tragedy -- and also progress and growth.

At first Mr. Wallace stood -- literally stood -- in the school doorway as the symbol of unyielding defiance to full civil rights for black Americans. His rallying cry as Alabama governor was unmistakable: ``Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.''

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But legal segregation was not to be forever, for the Old South, or for Mr. Wallace. By his last statewide election, in 1982, the tide of discrimination had turned around. ``New South'' governors, representing racial moderation and calling for high-tech-oriented economic development, were in office throughout the region. Wallace had also changed, running in 1982 as a moderate on race. In that '82 contest he won the overwhelming support of blacks -- a tribute as much to the sense of forgiveness and toleration on the part of Alabama's black community as to the changing perceptions of Mr. Wallace.

Still, it is in his quest for the American presidency -- in 1964, 1968, and then in 1972, when he was cut down in a barrage of gunfire that confined him to a wheelchair -- that Wallace most left his mark on national politics. Early on he was the voice of the disaffected and resentful -- before later Presidents such as Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan tapped the support of ``outsiders.'' In 1968, running as a third-party candidate, Wallace won almost 10 million votes, perhaps denying the presidential election to Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate -- and, in the process, indelibly altering the landscape of subsequent American history.

In his political lifetime, the politics of racism was defeated and a new period of reconciliation begun.

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