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Big Chuck

February 13, 2012

George Wallace gives us the 'one-finger salute'

This is Black History Month. I regret that I was never involved in the civil rights movement.

Once, however, I did find myself amid a fiery cauldron of full-throated, high-spirited public discourse.

Thanks a lot, George Wallace.

I was a teenager going to college in Albany when 1968 presidential candidate Gov. George Wallace came for a rally. The word had gone out the week before, and the city was walking on eggshells by the time his plane touched down at Albany Airport.

The date was Oct. 10, 1968.

The year up to that point had defined the word turbulent. The Vietnam War was raging, badly. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered April 4; Bobby Kennedy eight weeks later. Our country's urban centers had been laid waste by rioting and looting. And Wallace, a fire stoker from the bad, old days, was bringing his lightning rod campaign for the presidency to our state's capital.

I was there.

The day was hot and brilliant. My friend from Sidney, Steve Wade, and I walked down Central Avenue to the rallying point. The crowd grew thicker as we approached the Capitol. Police helicopters buzzed the airways. Albany cops on horseback kept a close eye on the noisy pro- and anti-Wallace protesters. The image of these mounted tribunes, helmeted and staring out through darkened glasses, holsters unbuttoned on their hips, was quite unsettling.

By the time Wallace appeared at the foot of the Capitol staircase, shielded by a large bulletproof partition, the huge throng was boiling over. Steve and I worked our way up to the front of the crowd. Sharpshooters lined the rooftops of the old DeWitt Clinton Hotel. The police helicopters buzzed low over the crowd. The cacophony was earsplitting.

Construction workers from the Empire Plaza were there en masse in their hard hats, SUNY Albany's black students marched behind a banner that read "Wallace for Fuhrer," and hundreds of ordinary Albany residents craned their necks to witness perhaps the most boisterous display of freedom of speech in the state capital's long history.

I saw the area colleges represented there with mop-haired students carrying their banners from R.P.I., Skidmore, Russell Sage and others. Only recently I found out that my friend Mike Newell, of Hartwick, was there that very same day with his group from Adirondack Community College.

The thousands in the crowd were unashamed to shout out their slogans, and in fact they seemed emboldened by the chants. It was nerve racking and exciting.

I was 18 years old.

Whatever the liver-lipped "Alabammy Bantam Rooster" said that day is now long forgotten. Although I am sure he was able to slip in his patented "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" boilerplate rant.

When the rally was over (Wallace was actually shouted down that day), the candidate was muscled off the stage and into a long, black limousine. As the crowd dispersed, Steve and I started slowly walking back home down Western Avenue.

As we came to a corner near Washington Park, we stopped at a crosswalk. All of a sudden, police motorcycles screamed up beside us. We were startled and jumped back. There, coming to a stop directly next to us was the long, black limousine of George Wallace.

Summoning whatever courage we had within us, Steve and I shouted at the car "Get out of Albany" and "Go Home" or something equally ineloquent. As we yelled at the vehicle, the back passenger-side tinted window slowly rolled down and an arm emerged from it.

We could vaguely see the image of the person inside the car. As we stared at this arm coming out to us from the biggest car we had ever seen, the middle finger of the hand slowly rose. A slight whiff of cigar smoke wafted out from the back seat, the arm receded back into the car and the window rolled shut. The sirens wailed, and the limo sped up the street and out of sight.

Steve and I looked at each other. We had just been given the "one-finger salute" by none other than George Wallace. We howled in laughter and headed up to the Washington Tavern for a celebratory beer.

No, I was never involved in the civil rights movement. But during this, and every February Black History Month, I can't help but recall when an evil man from the South brought his segregation hate to my northern college town.

I was there. And we told him to go home.

I'll catch you in two. ...

"Big Chuck" D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.

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