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.
While a federal court order ultimately forced the integration of Montgomery’s public transportation system rather than the boycott itself, the Montgomery Bus Boycott dealt a crushing blow to the belief that minorities had neither the will nor the opportunity to change the rules and encouraged African Americans to believe that black lives mattered.
But the day of liberation from the shackles of segregation would be a long time in coming, for the Sixteenth Baptist Church and the Edmund Pettus Bridge still lay ahead.
While history reminds us of the heroics of the giants of the Civil Rights Movement, it sometimes fails to acknowledge the struggles and sacrifices of the men, women and children that marched behind them. For they too faced the humiliation of shouting mobs and hate filled faces as they walked along the blacktop roads and city streets of America. They were housekeepers and maids, laborers and farmers, students and teachers, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who dared to believe that their lives and their dignity mattered.
She paused over each of those last three words in that first paragraph — black lives mattered — as if to affirm to the gathered that the struggle then for dignity and equal treatment under the law remains today. With that elegant phrasing, Wallace Kennedy showed an understanding that far too many continue to refuse to accept. That black lives matter as much as everyone else’s and that those demanding dignity are myriad Americans who remain nameless until tragedy makes them a household name.
Wallace Kennedy earned sustained applause when she took Martin Luther King’s “I have A Dream” speech and applied it to a seminal moment that some in the room had witnessed with their own eyes.
On August the 28th, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and spoke to the heart of America. It was one of his finest moments. It was the day he told America that he had a dream. In that speech he said, “I have a dream that one day, . . . right [down] there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
On the day of the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, Bernice King and I stood on the steps of the Alabama capital and held hands as thousands of people marched towards us. For that moment of time, we became the embodiment of the little black girl and the little white girl holding hands as sisters down in Alabama.
The speech Wallace Kennedy gave that day two years ago would make her an instant icon in the cause of racial healing, understand and reconciliation. What pushed her into this role was a question years ago from her son, Burns, during a trip to the King Center in Atlanta. There, she said, her young son saw photos of the fire hoses used in Birmingham, the Edmund Pettus Bridge and his grandfather standing in the schoolhouse door.
“Burns stood still as the truth of his family’s past washed over him,” Wallace Kennedy recounted from the steps of the Alabama state capitol, “he turned to me and said, ‘Why did Papa do those things to other people?’ I realized at that moment that I was at a crossroad in my life and the life of my son. The mantle had passed. And it was up to me to do for Burns what my father never did for me. It was the first step in my journey of building a legacy of my own.” She said she told her son, “Papa never told me why he did those things. But I know that he was wrong. So, maybe it will have to be up to me and you to help make things right.”
A post shared by Jonathan Capehart (@capehartj) on
Those words earned Wallace Kennedy a standing ovation and sustained applause in the same place where her father declared in his 1963 inaugural address, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” But as important as those words were, their impact paled in comparison to her final words to John Lewis. When he, King and thousands of African Americans descended upon the state capitol from Selma on March 25, 1965, then-Gov. Wallace only watched through his office window.
Fifty years ago, you stood here in front of your state capitol and sought an opportunity as a citizen of Alabama to be recognized and heard by your governor. And he refused. But today, as his daughter and as a person of my own, I want to do for you what my father should have done and recognize you for your humanity and for your dignity as a child of God, as a person of goodwill and character. and as a fellow Alabamian and say, “Welcome home.”
And with those two words, Wallace Kennedy bridged a painful divide in her personal history and in her state. Yet, as we have seen in our present day, racism and fear of the other persist. Battles against bigotry and hatred never seem to lead to a permanent victory. But that’s no excuse for inaction or push-back.
“We must choose to stand up rather than stand by when justice for all is at risk,” Wallace Kennedy said in her speech at the Alabama state archives last weekend with her now-adult son Burns in the audience. With Jewish cemeteries being desecrated, immigrants being targeted for violence, and with white nationalism establishing a prominent beachhead in the West Wing of the White House, what Wallace Kennedy counsels is our only option.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj
Subscribe to Cape Up, Jonathan Capehart’s weekly podcast