Memory Of Governor Wallace Assassination Attempt Fades In Maryland Town
Tuesday, May 15th 2007, 8:00 AM CDT
LAUREL, Md. (AP) _ Many of Laurel's older residents can point to the precise spot in the shopping center where Arthur Bremer's gunshots paralyzed Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace and cut short his campaign for the White House in 1972.
They recall just what they were doing that May 15 afternoon when they heard that the loner from Milwaukee had shot Wallace five times as he shook hands in the parking lot of what was then the city's main retail plaza.
But 35 years later, as Laurel struggles to retain its small-town identity, the collective memory of its most famous event is fading.
``People say it happened over near the bank, but other people say it was over there'' by the drug store, said Scott Branch, standing behind the counter of the Hobby Works store he manages in the Laurel Shopping Center.
Branch said he frequently uses the shooting as a landmark in giving directions to the store. But with the younger set, ``I tell them it's where the Books-A-Million is and they say, 'Oh, I know where that is.'''
Wallace, who had carried five Southern states as a fist-shaking third party candidate in 1968, was mounting a surprisingly successful run in the Democratic primaries in 1972 before Laurel. Billing himself as the candidate of ``the average American,'' he was viewed as a serious wild card in the party and in Republican President Richard Nixon's bid for re-election.
A former segregationist, Wallace was best known for standing defiantly at the all-white University of Alabama in a symbolic face-off with the Justice Department as the National Guard stood by and two black students enrolled in 1963. By 1972, he had tempered his racist rhetoric and adopted a more subtle approach, denouncing federal courts over the ``involuntary busing'' of schoolchildren to meet desegregation orders and pledging a return to a ``law and order'' society.
Wallace had consistently fared well in polls and a few weeks before Laurel had led the crowded Democratic field in the presidential primary in Florida, where he carried every county. Even as he lay in the hospital after the assassination attempt, he led in Maryland and Michigan.
But the shooting effectively ended his national career, diminishing the fiery charisma that had made him a dominant political force in Alabama and leaving him in a wheelchair until his death in 1998.
There has never been much discussion of erecting a public marker on the site, city spokesman Jim Collins said. Even though Wallace ultimately apologized and asked forgiveness for his segregationist stands, a memorial would probably meet opposition because of his past, Collins said.
Views might be different had Wallace died at the site, he said. Memorials are more common at sites where historical figures died, such as John F. Kennedy in Dallas or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. There is no marker, for example, at the Washington hotel where President Reagan was wounded in a 1981 shooting.
Michael Brey, who owns the Hobby Works store, said a simple marker might be appropriate. But he said it could be tricky.
``How do you do it without making it seem like it's a monument to a man who stood out in front of a school blocking black children from attending?'' he said.
Today, Laurel hardly resembles the small mill town it once was. Growth from the nation's capital about 20 miles to the south has surrounded the city with suburbs, and a busy commercial district with fast-food restaurants and car dealerships now dwarfs the strip center where Wallace was shot.
No one seems to know what happened to the wooden stage that the shopping center would roll out for community events and that Wallace stood upon to deliver his stump speech before wading into the crowd.
The bank that sits alone in the middle of the parking lot _ and is closest to the shooting site _ once displayed a large photograph of the scene in the lobby. But the national chain that bought the bank took it down years ago.
``I heard about it when I first opened my account,'' said 20-year Laurel resident Dianne W. Shields as she left the bank recently. ``They had (the photo) posted right there in front. You couldn't miss it ... everybody would talk about it.''
Wallace's family has never considered requesting a marker at the site, said Wallace's son, George Wallace Jr., a former Alabama Public Service commissioner who lost a bid to become lieutenant governor last year. If the local community wanted one, the family wouldn't object, he said. But it isn't planning to get involved.
``Time passes, memories fade. It's part of life,'' he said. ``It is a very historic site though. It sure is.''