- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2007

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 Mr. Wallace five times as he shook hands in the parking lot of what was then the city’s main retail plaza.

But as the 35th anniversary of the shooting approaches and Laurel struggles to retain its small-town identity, the collective memory of its most famous event is fading. Unlike Memphis or Dallas, the site of Mr. Wallace’s assassination attempt bears no public marker, and the town is growing fuzzy about it.

“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.

Mr. Branch said he frequently uses the shooting as a landmark in giving directions to the store. But with the younger set, he said, “I tell them it’s where the Books-A-Million is and they say, ‘Oh, I know where that is.’ ”

Mr. 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 M. Nixon’s bid for re-election.

A former segregationist who had tempered his racist rhetoric and adopted a populist, outsider campaign, Mr. Wallace had consistently fared well in polls and a few weeks earlier 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, robbing him of the fiery charisma that had made him a dominant political force in Alabama and leaving him in a wheelchair until his death in 1998.

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 Mr. Wallace was shot.

Lifelong Laurel resident Lois Jones said she was preparing milkshakes and hot dogs that day at the shopping center’s S.S. Kresge lunch counter — now a grocery store — when everybody suddenly walked toward the door.

“At first we all thought it was a bank robbery,” she said. “But then it was, ‘Oh, Wallace was shot.’

“The rest of the day we had no customers. It was all Wallace, so I just sat and drank coffee,” she said.

Even city spokesman Jim Collins has a Wallace story. He was delivering auto parts to the shopping center that day and remembers seeing a couple of young black men heckling Mr. Wallace from a distance. He had just driven away when he heard news of the shooting on the radio. He turned around and drove back.

Physical reminders of the attack are disappearing, however.

Mr. Collins wondered what happened to the wooden stage that the shopping center would roll out for community events, from which Mr. Wallace delivered 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.”

There has never been much discussion of erecting a public marker or memorial on the site, Mr. Collins said, probably because of Mr. Wallace’s segregationist past and because he survived the attack. The city is open to citizens’ suggestions, he said, but any effort for a memorial would probably meet opposition.

“It’s tragic that it happened … but times have changed. Society has changed,” he said.

For its part, Mr. Wallace’s family has never considered requesting a marker at the site, said Mr. Wallace’s son, George Wallace Jr., a former Alabama Public Service commissioner who lost a bid to become lieutenant governor in last year’s Republican primary. If the local community wanted one, the family wouldn’t object, he said. But relatives aren’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.”

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