12/27/1982 at 01:00 AM EST
If ever a politician seemed relegated to the past tense—and a minor footnote in history—George Corley Wallace qualified. His very name symbolized to most of the nation the kind of racism he made famous 20 years ago in promising Alabamians "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" In 1978 he was divorced from second wife Cornelia after bitter proceedings, and in 1981 he married a bouffant blonde half his age, best known as the latter half of a country-and-Western duo called Mona and Lisa. Today the 63-year-old former pugilist is largely immobilized by the five bullets that ended his 1972 presidential bid, and he is so hard of hearing he must read lips.
And yet on Election Day, Nov. 2, Wallace rolled over his Republican opponent for an unprecedented fourth trip to the Governor's mansion (not counting the term of his late first wife, Lurleen, who was elected as his surrogate in 1966). Actually, his greater triumph came in the Democratic primary when he won a close runoff against a young liberal, Lt. Gov. George McMillan.
The Wallace victory, as unlikely as it may sound, was based on heavy support from his old political foes, Alabama blacks. This time around he won the day shaking black hands, kissing black beauty queens and apologizing for a separatist system he now confesses was wrong. Of the difficulties blacks suffered in the '60s and '70s Wallace now says, "I was to blame for a lot of it."
Hypocrisy? The jury may still be out on that question, but black voters came to Wallace in 1982 (with 25 to 30 percent of the black vote in the primary) because they took him at his word, and because they believed even a George Wallace can be—personally and politically—redeemed. Wallace's surprising showing in the primary was orchestrated by a black woman, Delores Pickett, who emphasized that "forgiveness is in our Christian upbringing. It is something Martin Luther King taught us. Wallace said he made mistakes, and people have started to believe him."
Ironically, it was King's dream of a coalition of poor whites and poor blacks that secured Wallace's election. He positioned himself as the populist candidate who could use his national visibility to ease Alabama's 14.3 percent unemployment rate. His new black constituency will be watching that, and every other issue, closely. As one observer evenly put it, "Blacks will be looking to see if he is really 'sorry about that.' The proof of the pudding is in the eating."