REP. BARBARA LEE: George Wallace was the epitome of an oppressor. He was the epitome of the legacy of a slave master, and this man kept my people down.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Hi, I’m Jonathan Capehart and this is “Voices of the Movement,” a series from my podcast “Cape Up” sharing the stories and lessons of some of the leaders of the civil rights movement — and using them to figure out where we go from here.
Our story this week is one of compassion and new beginnings. It’s about building bridges.
And it’s about George Wallace.
Yes, that George Wallace — 45th governor of Alabama, known as the man who during his 1963 inaugural address said, “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. And segregation forever.”
The man who the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once called the “most dangerous racist in America.”
George Wallace was the embodiment of resistance to the civil rights movement.
But George Wallace is also the man who in 1982, ran for governor for a fourth and final term and won . . . 90 percent of the black vote.
To understand how this happened, you have to start with Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California, and the story of how she got into politics.
I talked to her about this as we stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge — made infamous by the horror of Bloody Sunday.
LEE: I never registered to vote. I was a black-student union president working as a community worker for the Black Panther Party, and made a decision early on not to register to vote because I didn’t think politics made a difference in my life or in the lives of my people.
My mother was one of the first 12 African American students to integrate the University of Texas at El Paso. My dad was in the military and we tried to go to restaurants to eat . . . in his uniform, and they would say I’m sorry we don’t serve . . . and would use the n-word. And so I grew up in the system of oppression and humiliation and segregation and Jim Crow.
CAPEHART: Lee was attending Mills College in Oakland, Calif., as the 1972 presidential campaign was heating up.
LEE: I had a class . . . it was class and government and part of our work was to work in a field campaign for one of the candidates. Well, I told my professor flunk me because I’m not gonna work in any of the campaigns. McGovern, Muskie, Humphrey, no way.
CAPEHART: If you listened to the last episode, you know there was one candidate Lee could consider.
Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman in Congress and the first of her race and gender to run for president. So, Lee invited Chisholm to speak to the black-student union.
LEE: And I went up told her about my class that I was about ready to flunk because I couldn’t work in any of these other guys campaigns, and maybe I would consider working in hers.
And she shook her finger at me and said, “Little girl.” Here I was raising two little kids. I was in my 20s by then. She says, “Are you registered to vote?” I said, “no.” She looked at me like “you must register to vote, first of all, to get involved in politics,” she says. “I’m leaving it up to my local supporters to help me with my campaign.”
So I went back to my class, I asked my professor and she says, “Hey, that's up to you. That's part of the course work.” Bottom line is, I ended up organizing [Chisholm’s] Northern California campaign from my class at Mills College. I went to Miami as a delegate and got an A in the class.
Now, remember, I was very and still am very idealistic, and I thought Shirley Chisholm was the epitome of what a president should be.
CAPEHART: There was another candidate running for president that year who we haven’t mentioned.
George Wallace. The governor of Alabama who was serving a second term that he had won on a deeply racist platform.
LEE: George Wallace was the epitome of an oppressor. So here this man, who was running for president, was like the descendant of a slave owner. And it was obnoxious to me that America . . . I thought we had come a long way even when schools were desegregated, I thought that was a major step in the ’50s. But now here we were dealing with, in the early ’70s, the reemergence of what I thought was the old Jim Crow that we thought we were working toward ending.
CAPEHART: George Wallace was reviled in the black community, and revered in the white, segregationist community.
During the pilgrimage to Alabama this year, his daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, gave a speech at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery about when that all began to change.
PEGGY WALLACE KENNEDY: When I was young, living back in Clayton, Ala., my father, George Wallace, was always on the move — too much to do to sit down. He wore out the soles of his shoes, almost every month. “Peggy Sue you need to keep up,” he’d say as we walked home from church. He thought better. Talked better, loved life better, when he and his shoes were moving.
On May 15, 1972, Daddy jumped up from the breakfast table with a glass of milk in his hand. “Where are you going?” I said. “To Maryland,” he said. “Have two stops then right back home. Tell the ladies in the kitchen to fix a nice dinner for us. And make sure they have enough ketchup,” he said, as he gave me a kiss and a sideways hug. The mansion door, kitchen door, opened then shut. I heard daddy walking down the concrete steps. Then over to the car. “Let’s go fellas,” he said to his guards and driver. “We have to stop two stops on the schedule. Last one is Laurel, Maryland.”
A little after 3 p.m. at the Laurel shopping center in Laurel, Maryland., Daddy was shot five times. One of the bullets lodged in his spine.
CAPEHART: Wallace was shot by Arthur Bremer while on the campaign trail. In diaries later found by the police, Bremer detailed how he wanted to become famous by assassinating President [Richard M.] Nixon. But when that plan seemed too difficult, George Wallace was the next best thing.
WALLACE KENNEDY: The following afternoon, I stood by my daddy’s bedside when he was told he would never walk again. No more climbing fences. No more standing up. No more rushing out the door. No new soles on his shoes. One pair for the rest of his life would be all he needed. Our journey ahead, he could no longer walk along. Had to be saved by someone other than himself.
CAPEHART: Barbara Lee was campaigning for Shirley Chisholm at the time. She was organizing the Northern California campaign from her class at Mills College.
LEE: And then the campaign was suspended. And it was suspended so [Chisholm] could go visit George Wallace, the segregationist who was shot, and he was in the hospital in Alabama. I said, “What? No way!”
WALLACE KENNEDY: Her decision to visit Daddy in the hospital was met with surprise and consternation.
LEE: So all of the optimism that I had about this candidate, I don’t say went away, but I put it on hold.
WALLACE KENNEDY: One of her staff members was adamantly opposed to Shirley Chisholm’s decision to temporarily suspend her campaign to visit George Wallace but she did.
LEE: I just could not believe it. How in the world could this woman, this black woman, go visit this horrible individual?
WALLACE KENNEDY: When Congresswoman Chisholm sat by my daddy’s bed, he asked her, “What are your people going to say about your coming here?” Shirley Chisholm replied, “I know what they’re going to say but I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.” Daddy was overwhelmed by her truth, and her willingness to face the potential negative consequences of her political career because of him — something he had never done for anyone else.
LEE: I said, “Miss C.” We called her Miss C. or Shirley. “How could you do that? I mean this man. First of all, he’s running against you. And secondly, he’s running for president. And thirdly, he’s a segregationist and he’s trying to maintain the status quo that you’re trying to change." And once again, she shook her finger at me. She said, “Little girl,” she says, “C’mon now, you’re working with me in my campaign, helping me,” she said. “But sometimes we have to remember we’re all human beings, and I may be able to teach him something, to help him regain his humanity, to maybe make him open his eyes to make him see something that he has not seen.” She said, “So you know you always have to be optimistic that people can change, and that you can change and that one act of kindness may make all the difference in the world,” she said. “So yes I know people are angry,” — it wasn’t just me. She says, “I know people are really angry,” she said, “but you have to rise to the occasion if you’re a leader, and you have to try to break through and you have to try and open and enlighten other people who may hate you." And that’s what she taught me.
What she said to me took root. And I hugged her and thanked her and I told her, “But I’m so angry.” But she said, “You’ll get over it.” She said, “You know this is who we are as black people.” She reminded us of our history and who we are and we’re not haters and we’re not people who are going to live our lives mean-spirited and angry and so she kind of walked me through why I should move on.
CAPEHART: Neither Wallace nor Chisholm won the Democratic nomination that year. It went to George McGovern, who lost to Richard Nixon in an election that became historic for other reasons.
But it was the beginning of something else for Wallace.
WALLACE KENNEDY: Shirley Chisholm had the courage to believe that even George Wallace could change. She had faith in him. And there would be others who followed. In 1972, Shirley Chisholm planted a seed of new beginnings in my father’s heart. A chance to make it right. An opportunity for a better byway for the seven-year journey he would take from there to this very church.
On a Sunday in 1979, Daddy’s arrival to this church was unannounced and unexpected. But for an attendant rolling his wheelchair to the front of this sanctuary, he was alone. What the congregation must have thought when he said, “I’ve learned what suffering means in a way that was impossible. I think I can understand something of the pain that black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain and I can only ask for your forgiveness.” As he was leaving the church, the congregation began singing “Amazing Grace.”
CAPEHART: Wallace’s transformation not only included publicly renouncing racism, it also involved him personally asking black leaders for forgiveness. As governor, he appointed a record number of African Americans to state positions. Wallace even crowned the first black homecoming queen at the University of Alabama.
LEE: In getting to know Peggy, you know, I see exactly what Shirley Chisholm meant. I mean, her father, she saw this happen right there in the hospital room in front of her eyes, what Shirley Chisholm told me when I was about to bail. And to know 40 years later, this made an impact, I just see how Shirley Chisholm’s wisdom . . . it was something that I will always remember and be grateful for because I hope it informs me in my work every day with people I totally disagree with.
WALLACE KENNEDY: Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. Rather, it means that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again. Without this, no man can love his enemies.” As one writer observed, “Who would have ever thought that George C. Wallace would by both word and act become an example of what King proposed?”
CAPEHART: Peggy Wallace Kennedy ended her speech with a bit of drama, revealing to the audience what you already know — that it was now-Congresswoman Barbara Lee who was angered by Chisholm’s visit to her injured father. But, it is what she said in her revelation that demonstrates the power of forgiveness, healing and purposeful reconciliation.
WALLACE KENNEDY: But there is an important footnote to this story that inspires me every day. The young campaign worker — who in 1972 was angered by Shirley Chisholm’s decision to suspend her campaign to visit George Wallace, my father — is here in this church today and who is like a sister to me, Congresswoman Barbara Lee. And the power of love lives on.
CAPEHART: Coming up on “Voices of the Movement”: Music!