I was one of two kids from Baldwin County that was chosen to go to Washington along with hundreds of other kids across the country. Before we left, the Alabama delegation took a trip to our state capitol in Montgomery for a meeting with the governor. The governor's name was George C. Wallace. The same George Wallace who in 1963 stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to block African Americans from enrolling. Wallace embraced the evils of segregation. He pitted whites against blacks, the South against the North, the working class against the socalled elites. Meeting my governor was not an honor for me.
My heroes in life were Dr. Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy, who had fought against the very things that Wallace stood for. Keep in mind, that I grew up, or, when I grew up, I grew up in a place where King and Kennedy were not exactly held in high esteem. When I was a kid, the South was still coming to grips with its history. My textbooks even said the Civil War was about states' rights. They barely mentioned slavery.
So I had to figure out for myself what was right and true. It was a search. It was a process. It drew on the moral sense that I'd learned from my parents, and in church, and in my own heart, and led me on my own journey of discovery. I found books in the public library that they probably didn't know they had. They all pointed to the fact that Wallace was wrong. That injustices like segregation had no place in our world. That equality is a right.
As I said, I was only 16 when I met Governor Wallace, so I shook his hand as we were expected to do. But shaking his hand felt like a betrayal of my own beliefs. It felt wrong. Like I was selling a piece of my soul.
From Montgomery we flew to Washington. It was the first time I had ever been on an airplane. In fact it was the first time that I traveled out of the South. On June 15, 1977, I was one of 900 high schoolers greeted by the new president, President Jimmy Carter, on the south lawn of the White House, right there on the other side of the ellipse. I was one of the lucky ones, who got to shake his hand. Carter saw Baldwin County on my name tag that day and stopped to speak with me. He wanted to know how people were doing after the rash of storms that struck Alabama that year. Carter was kind and compassionate; he held the most powerful job in the world but he had not sacrificed any of his humanity. I felt proud that he was president. And I felt proud that he was from the South. In the space of a week, I had come face to face with two men who guaranteed themselves a place in history. They came from the same region. They were from the same political party. They were both governors of adjoining states. But they looked at the world in very different ways. It was clear to me, that one was right, and one was wrong. Wallace had built his political career by exploiting divisions between us. Carter's message on the other hand, was that we are all bound together, every one of us. Each had made a journey that led them to the values that they lived by, but it wasn't just about their experiences or their circumstances, it had to come from within.
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