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In the 1960s, Alabama Gov. George Wallace led the South's efforts against racial integration. His daughter grapples with that legacy in a new book.
Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Civil rights advocate. Author of "The Broken Road: George Wallace and a Daughter’s Journey to Reconciliation."
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Excerpt from "The Broken Road" by Peggy Wallace Kennedy
Chapter 1: The Bridge
It was a sun-filled and breezy early spring day in Selma, Alabama, home to one of the most significant events of the civil rights era. Congressman John Lewis held my hand as we walked toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where in 1965 sheriff’s deputies and Alabama state had troopers attacked the vanguard of approximately five hundred to six hundred people as they began a march for voting rights. The tempo of beating drums and our voices singing “We Shall Overcome” rode over and above the sound of our footsteps. John seemed oblivious to the disapproving eyes of some of those people who recognized me not for who I was but for what my father, George Wallace, had done in 1965 when he was governor of Alabama.
I had been asked to speak at the forty-fourth annual bridge crossing ceremony, commemorating what had come to be known as Bloody Sunday. After Bloody Sunday, the marchers had tried two more times to cross the bridge. It was only after President Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard to protect them that they succeeded. They walked for three days and then rallied at the capitol, which led to the passage of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.
My daddy had been a key player——on the wrong side——of this inspiring and heart-wrenching history. He publicly maintained that he had given an order to stop the marchers but not to harm them. He claimed that his deputy, Al Lingo, disobeyed. Even if this was true, though, he should have, at the very least, protected the marchers and their right to march. It would have been easy enough for him to issue an order to stop Lingo. Daddy’s public denials that he had any part in what took place that day was like Pontius Pilate washing his hands. I knew that I had to come to Selma following the inauguration of President Obama in January 2009. It wasn’t easy for me. I had risked the disapproval of friends and family with my open support for Obama’s candidacy, and I wondered if I dared to come before those who had suffered at the hands of my father in the 1960s and speak. It was a test of my courage. Would I be able to stand up and introduce America’s first African American attorney general, Eric Holder? Holder’s wife, Sharon, was the sister of Vivian Malone, who met had my father for the first time during another key event in the struggle for civil rights. Daddy had made his “stand in the schoolhouse door,” as it came to be known, in June 1963, blocking Vivian’s admission to the University of Alabama, which he had refused to desegregate. He infamously proclaimed: “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”
My husband, Mark, and I parked a few blocks from the church where I was slated to introduce Holder. Few people recognized me as we walked through the streets, which were busy with people come to commemorate the day, but as we approached the church’s front doors, it became apparent word was spreading that George Wallace’s daughter was going to introduce Attorney General Holder, the brother-in-law of Vivian Malone Jones who had faced off with Daddy on the day he stood in the schoolhouse door in 1963.
Mark took a seat in the church while I was escorted to a small study to meet John Lewis and the legendary civil rights leader Joseph Lowery. I vividly remembered their heroic actions in Selma all those years before when I was just fifteen years old. I had sat beside my mother that night in the sitting room of the Governor’s Mansion, watching “Judgment at Nuremberg” on TV, a film about the trial of German judges who had sentenced Jews under Hitler’s regime.
“Weren’t the Jews Germans too?” I asked.
“Yes,” my mother replied.
The screen went blank and then came back on. Alabama state troopers and men on horseback chased a group of African Americans. A young man in a tan trench coat was bludgeoned and, on the ground, savagely beaten. He wore a tan coat. I would learn that man’s name was John Lewis.
My mother didn’t outwardly react to the broadcast. She kept her feelings to herself, and so did I. But inside I was horrified. People were being beaten! How could my daddy allow that to happen? Bloody Sunday would haunt me and my family. My support of Obama and coming to Selma were part of my commitment to make things right. We must live our lives with inspiration, always aspiring to make the choices that lead us to higher ground, that guide us to understanding, of not just who we are but who we can become.
John and Joseph greeted me warmly. We talked about my father’s later years, when he was crippled and in the twilight of his life and had renounced his former positions and tried to make amends. John, Joseph, and Jesse Jackson as well as other African American leaders had gathered at his bedside. He asked them for forgiveness——and they forgave him. What an incredible gift. And now they gathered me in the arms of collective friendship, and I felt all things were possible, and that indeed, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we would all cross over, cross over and reach the Promised Land.
John intimated that he understood the complexity of Daddy’s character. He saw in him a conflicted man whose Achilles’ heel had been his monomaniacal quest for power.
“I am from Pike County,” John said. “Well, I went to college at Troy State,” I replied. “I wanted to go to Troy State,” John told me. “But I couldn’t, so I called Dr. King to see if he could get me in.” And Dr. King said, ‘“Why don’t you just come and help me?’” That was the beginning of John’s involvement in the civil rights movement.
It was impossible not to sense history when I entered the sanctuary of the Brown Chapel AME Church, a National Historic Landmark. It was from here that the voting rights march began. I was seated on the dais behind the pulpit with the others who would speak that day. The choir was behind us.
The sanctuary was full when the service began. For those who had lived through Bloody Sunday and its aftermath, what joy they must have felt to come to the very place where the voting rights march began, to celebrate the election of America’s first African American president and see the first African American attorney general. As I walked to the lecturn to introduce Holder, I felt my soul climb up beyond my fear of public speaking. I thought of my sons—it was a moment they could share with their children. I was there not because of who I was—the daughter of George and Lurleen Wallace—but rather for who I had become: a staunch advocate for civil rights and racial justice.
At the conclusion of the service, I stood arm in arm with Reverend Lowery and Jesse Jackson as we all sang “We Shall Overcome.” We kept singing that anthem of the dream of freedom and equality for all people as we flowed out into the street and marched toward the bridge where the marchers had been met by sheriff’s deputies and Alabama state troopers when I was just a girl.
The bridge loomed large in the distance. My hand was in John’s hand. My voice rose with John’s voice. We walked through the streets of Selma, once one of the wealthiest cities in the South, ringed by cotton plantations worked by slaves. I thought of another moment that had brought me to this point: November 5, 2008, the day after Barack Obama had been elected president. CNN had published an article I wrote in support of an Obama presidency. In it, I told the story of going to Greenwood Cemetery in Montgomery, where my parents were buried. I heard a car door slam behind me and turned to see an elderly but spry woman heading my way. The night before, a gang of vandals had swept through the cemetery desecrating graves, crushing headstones and stealing funereal objects. My parents’ graves, situated on a windswept hill overlooking the cemetery, had not been spared. A large marble urn that stood between two granite columns had been pried loose and spirited away, leaving faded silk flowers strewn on the ground.
I was holding a bouquet of them in my arms when the woman walked up and gave me a crushing hug. “Honey,” she said, ““you don’t know me, but when I saw you standing up here on this hill, I knew that you must be one of the [Wallace] girls and I couldn’t help myself but to drive up here and let you know how much me and my whole family loved both of your parents. They were real special people.”
I thanked her for her kind words as we stood side by side gazing down at the graves of my parents. She leaned in to me with a conspiratorial whisper: “I never thought I would live to see the day when a black would be running for president. I know your daddy must be rolling over in his grave.”
Not having the heart or the energy to respond, I gave her bony arm a slight squeeze, turned, and walked away. As I put the remnants of the graveyard sprig in the trunk of my car, I assumed that she had not noticed my Obama bumper sticker.
As a young voter, I had little interest in politics. Daddy marked my ballot for me. Leaving the cemetery, I mused that if Daddy were alive and I had made the same request for this election, there would be a substantial chance, though not a certainty, that he would have put an X by Obama’s name. Perhaps Obama’s election would have been the last chapter in the search for inner peace that became so important to him after becoming a victim of hatred and violence himself when he was shot and gravely injured in 1972.
That article had gotten 150,000 hits and brought me to national attention—here was obviously a very different kind of Wallace. And it was that article that led me to be invited to Selma for the anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
With his arm around me, John and I stepped to the bridge’s rail. “Peggy, crossing the bridge with you shows how far the human heart can go.”
I finally felt I had fulfilled the promise I made to my son Burns when he was a nine-year-old. Mark and I had taken him to Atlanta to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and Museum. As we moved through the exhibits, we turned a corner to face photographs of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the bombed-out 16th Street Baptist Church, fire hoses and dogs in Birmingham, and Daddy standing in the schoolhouse door.
Burns turned to me. “Why did Paw Paw do those things to other people?” he asked.
I knelt beside Burns and drew him close. “Paw Paw never told me why he did those things to other people. But I do know that he was wrong. So maybe it will just have to be up to you and to me to help make things right.”
It was really Burns’s question that had compelled me to stand with John on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It made me realize that I had to come to terms with my family’s history. It awakened in me the deep desire to create my own chapter in the Wallace saga.
John and I stood together, watching the Alabama River flow beneath us. It was as if the water was reaching up to me, washing away the pain of the past and giving me courage to step away and find my true self.
“Well, sister,” John finally said. “Guess it’s time for the two of us to move forward. Now you hold my hand ‘til we get to the other side.”
Excerpted from THE BROKEN ROAD by Peggy Wallace Kennedy. Copyright © Peggy Wallace Kennedy 2019. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing. Reprinted with permission.
Montgomery Advertiser: "Peggy Wallace Kennedy bringing 'The Broken Road' book tour to two Montgomery bookstores" — "Montgomery’s own Peggy Wallace Kennedy has been widely hailed as the 'symbol of racial reconciliation.'
"In the summer of 1963, she was just a young girl watching her father stand in a schoolhouse door as he tried to block two African-American students from entering the University of Alabama. This man, former governor of Alabama and presidential candidate George Wallace, was notorious for his hateful rhetoric and his political stunts.
"But he was also a larger-than-life father to his daughter, who was taught to smile, sit straight, and not speak up as her father took to the political stage."
Washington Post: "Opinion: George Wallace’s daughter: From segregation to ‘making things right’" — "If an enduring face of the pain and promise of the Civil Rights movement is Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), then Peggy Wallace Kennedy has become a symbol of racial reconciliation. In speeches and interviews over the past few years, the diminutive daughter of segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace looms large as an authoritative voice in acknowledging a painful past as part of a larger effort to move our nation forward together.
"Wallace Kennedy and I met last weekend during the Faith and Politics Institute’s Civil Rights pilgrimage with Lewis to his birth state of Alabama. After I walked in awe on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, she gave me the idea to 'Write down what’s in your head. Write what’s in your heart.' Fifty-two years ago on March 7, the brutality visited upon Lewis and other African Americans attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery would shock the nation and hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"In her speech Saturday night at the Alabama state archives, Wallace Kennedy paid tribute to the black men, women and children who boycotted Montgomery buses for 381 days after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white man. But in her poetic address, Wallace Kennedy linked the dignity of those brave souls then to a mantra that is the foundation of a revived civil rights movement."
Newsweek: "Daughter Of Notorious Segregationist George Wallace Says Trump Is Worse Than Her Father: 'Never Seen Anything Like It'" — "As President Donald Trump continues to invoke race as a major talking point ahead of the 2020 election, the daughter of an infamous segregationist politician from decades ago sees parallels between her father, former Alabama Governor George Wallace, and Trump.
"'I've never seen anything like it,' Peggy Wallace Kennedy said. 'I saw daddy a lot in 2016.'
"She suggested that Trump, a president who has consistently created controversy — both on and off the campaign trail, as well as before he was elected president — with racially-charged remarks, is perhaps not only racist, but that he is more so than Wallace, a politician who once promised 'segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.'
"'Unfortunately, it does look like the '60s now,' Wallace Kennedy said. 'Each of us, individually, need to act with compassion and pray for our democracy. I hope we don't go back. But it looks like where we are slipping... that seems to be where the top is taking us.' "
This program aired on December 9, 2019.
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