Recently deceased Civil Rights leader John Lewis wrote in 1998 for The New York Times about forgiving his old segregationist nemesis George Wallace:
Although we had long been adversaries, I did not meet Governor Wallace until 1979. During that meeting, I could tell that he was a changed man; he was engaged in a campaign to seek forgiveness from the same African-Americans he had oppressed. He acknowledged his bigotry and assumed responsibility for the harm he had caused. He wanted to be forgiven.
When I met George Wallace, I had to forgive him, because to do otherwise — to hate him — would only perpetuate the evil system we sought to destroy. George Wallace should be remembered for his capacity to change. And we are better as a nation because of our capacity to forgive and to acknowledge that our political leaders are human and largely a reflection of the social currents in the river of history.
I can never forget what George Wallace said and did as Governor, as a national leader and as a political opportunist. But our ability to forgive serves a higher moral purpose in our society. Through genuine repentance and forgiveness, the soul of our nation is redeemed. George Wallace deserves to be remembered for his effort to redeem his soul and in so doing to mend the fabric of American society.
Wallace was the Alabama governor who infamously proclaimed “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” He had begun in politics as a relative racial progressive but shifted to racial demagoguery to win elections. A lifelong active Methodist and church leader, he did not allow Christianity to inhibit his ambition. His wife’s death by cancer started an inner transformation.
But more decisively, Wallace’s paralysis from a 1972 assassination attempt, followed by years of physical torment, brought him spiritual reflection and empathy. His daughter recounts that while in the hospital he was visited by Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman member of U.S. Congress, which profoundly affected him.
In 1979 Wallace visited the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr had pastored, and offered his apologies. As his daughter recounted, he told the congregation: “I’ve learned what suffering means in a way that was impossible. I think I can understand something of the pain that black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain and I can only ask for your forgiveness.”
Wallace also began phoning old adversaries, especially black people, whom he had wronged during his political career. As his son recounted, “His own suffering and purification that brings and the enlightenment that brings, and his realization that some things he had done and said could have caused others to suffer, bothered him, concerned him as a Christian.”
Lewis, who was beaten by Wallace’s Alabama state troopers in 1965, got a call from Wallace and later recalled:
He was very candid, very frank, I thought. He literally poured out his soul and heart to me. Uh, it was almost like a confession, like I was his priest. He was telling me everything. That he did some things that was wrong, and that he was not proud of. He, he kept saying to me, “John, I don’t hate anybody. I, I don’t hate anybody.”
Lewis, who attended a Baptist seminary and was an ordained Baptist minister, of course understood the imperative and power of forgiveness for individuals and society. He also appreciated the mystery and majesty of Providence. He saw Wallace and other foes as part of a larger cosmic drama in which righteousness prevails through conflict and suffering:
Whether at the bridge in Selma, at a bombed church in Birmingham or on the schoolhouse steps, George Wallace and I were thrust together by fate, by our personal conviction and principle and by what I like to call the spirit of history. The civil rights movement achieved its goals in the person of Mr. Wallace, because he grew to see that we as human beings are joined by a common bond.
As a leader in the largely clergy-led Civil Rights Movement of 1960s, Lewis like MLK understood that persuasion and forgiveness better achieve lasting justice than do violence and vengeance. Wallace and the nation were convicted by appeals to conscience. MLK and his colleagues, who read Reinhold Niebuhr, were Christian Realists of a kind. They sought justice but knew demands for complete justice were unachievable and destructive. Approximate justice, sought by sinners against sinners, must be ameliorated by mercy.
On this topic Jordan Ballor recently cited Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt: “The freedom contained in Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which encloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.”
Absent forgiveness, there’s no peace among persons or within societies. This message, exemplified by Lewis extending mercy to Wallace, is much needed today, when zealous activisms dogmatically demand justice without mercy. All advocacies across the spectrum must recall their own limitations before waging their political wars. Reinhold Niebuhr warned:
The peace of a democratic community therefore depends upon some ultimate realization that our conception of justice is not quite as final as we imagine. It is made from our perspective and colored by our interest. If we do not realize this fact we become more & more fanatic in pressing for our solution of the problem, in asserting it is the only possible solution and in regarding our opponent, not merely as our opponent, but as an opponent of the common good.
There can be no common good without societal forgiveness and mercy, which Lewis knew well.