Peggy Wallace Kennedy, one of the daughters of George C. Wallace and Lurleen Wallace, both of whom were governors of Alabama, is married to my very good friend, Mark Kennedy, a retired state Supreme Court Justice. The Kennedy’s have two sons, Leigh, a decorated veteran of the Iraq war, and Burns, a college sophomore. I have known Peggy for years and really appreciate the observations she made in a recent interview with a reporter for CNN. I am including Peggy’s comments from the interview in this issue because of their historical significance. It’s a great testimony and I am proud of Peggy.
MY FATHER, GEORGE WALLACE, AND BARACK OBAMA
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 wind-swept 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 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 Govs. George Wallace and Lurleen Wallace. After a few moments, the woman leaned into me and spoke almost in 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 spray in the trunk of my car, I assumed that she had not bothered to notice the Barack Obama sticker on my bumper.
When I was a young voter and had little interest in politics, my father would mark my ballot for me. As I thought about the woman in the cemetery, I mused that if he 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 put an “X” by Obama’s name. Perhaps it would be the last chapter in his 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 a Laurel, Maryland, shopping center parking lot. Perhaps it would be a way of reconciling in his own mind that what he once stood for did not prevent freedom of opportunity and self-advancement from coming full circle; his final absolution.
George Wallace and other Southern governors of his ilk stood defiantly in the 1950s and ’60s in support of racial segregation, a culture of repression, violence and denial of basic human rights. Their actions and the stark images of their consequences that spread across the world galvanized the nation and gave rise to a cry for an end to the American apartheid. The firestorms that were lit in Birmingham, Oxford, Memphis, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, Little Rock and Selma were a call to arms to which the people responded. And now a new call to arms has sounded as Americans face another assault on freedom. For if the stand in the schoolhouse door was a defining moment for George Wallace, then surely the aftermath of Katrina and the invasion of Iraq will be the same for George W. Bush. The trampling of individual freedoms and his blatant contempt for the rights of the average American may not have been as obvious as an ax-handle-wielding governor, but Bush’s insidiousness and piety have made him much more dangerous.
Healing must come, hope will be our lodestar, humility will reshape the American conscience, and honesty in both word and deed will refresh and invigorate America, and having Barack Obama to lead will give us back our power to heal. My father lived long enough to come to an understanding of the injustices borne by his deeds and the legacy of suffering that they left behind. History will teach future generations that he was a man who used his political power to promote a philosophy of exclusion. As his daughter, who witnessed his suffering in the twilight of his years and who witnessed his deeds and heard his words, I am one who believes that the man who, on March 7, 1965, listened to the reports of brutality as they streamed into the Governor’s Mansion from Selma, Alabama, was not the same man who, in March of 1995, was welcomed with open arms as he was rolled through a sea of African-American men, women and children who gathered with him to welcome another generation of marchers, retracing in honor and remembrance the historic steps from Selma to Montgomery.
Four years ago, the young Illinois senator who spoke at the Democratic National Convention mesmerized me. I hoped even then that he would one day be my president. Today, Barack Obama is hope for a better tomorrow for all Americans. He stands on the shoulders of all those people who have incessantly prayed for a day when “justice will run down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). Perhaps one day, my two sons and I will have the opportunity to meet Barack Obama in person to express our gratitude to him for bringing our family full circle. And today, the day after the election, I am going to ride to the cemetery so that if asked, I can vouch for the fact that the world is still spinning but my father lies at peace.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peggy Wallace Kennedy.
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