Movie News & Reviews

Daughters of the civil rights era say watching ‘Selma’ was ‘difficult’ and ‘powerful’

Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace (second from left) with Donzaleigh Abernathy (center), daughter of the late Rev. Ralph Abernathy, stopped Thursday for a photo after their talk at Burns & McDonnell.
Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace (second from left) with Donzaleigh Abernathy (center), daughter of the late Rev. Ralph Abernathy, stopped Thursday for a photo after their talk at Burns & McDonnell. The Kansas City Star

In the foyer of Donzaleigh Abernathy’s childhood home hung a photograph of her father, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, with Martin Luther King Jr., Walter Fauntroy and President Lyndon Johnson.

So she said it was “difficult” for her, as a child who grew up on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, to watch “Selma” because of how it presented President Johnson.

“Lyndon Johnson was depicted as the obstacle when, in fact, it was the exact opposite.… President Johnson was considered to be our ally,” Abernathy said Thursday in Kansas City.

She and Peggy Wallace Kennedy spoke to Burns & McDonnell employees in a program titled “Children of Selma: A Dialogue with the Daughters of Rev. Ralph Abernathy & George Wallace.” Before the presentation, the women talked about watching “Selma.”

In 1965, Abernathy was 7 years old. She and her family participated in the protest march from Alabama’s Selma to the state capital, Montgomery, that eventually led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Her father was King’s partner through the Civil Rights Movement — King called Abernathy his best friend.

“My mother used to say we could’ve marched, and marched and marched; had it not been for President Lyndon Baines Johnson, we would not have the right to vote,” said Donzaleigh Abernathy, now an actress and lecturer who lives in Los Angeles.

Indeed, that is one of the criticisms of the film. Joseph Califano Jr., who was Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969, wrote a harsh editorial titled “The movie ‘Selma’ has a glaring flaw” in The Washington Post. Some critics wondered if this could be one reason “Selma” only received two Oscar nominations (best picture and original song) on Thursday.

Peggy Wallace Kennedy, a retired educator, grew up on the other side of the issue. She was 15 in 1965; Kennedy’s father was George Wallace, the governor of Alabama at that time. Her father famously tried to physically block two black students from desegregating the University of Alabama.

“My husband and I went to see it in 15-degree weather and we had to wait until everyone left the movie before I could leave. I was so overcome with emotion,” she recalled. “It was just a powerful movie about this man who led these people and all they wanted to do was vote. The struggle, the battle and all they wanted to do was vote as Americans.”

In a 2013 interview, Kennedy told The Associated Press that her father never talked about his views on segregation with her and that her mother “had raised her not to think that she was better than anyone else.”

Wallace died in 1998. Kennedy, who still lives in Alabama, said she knew her father had to be part of the story. But seeing him portrayed in a movie was not what got to her.

“The most moving scene in that movie was the jail scene with Doctor King and Reverend Abernathy; when Doctor King was down and was doubtful and Reverend Abernathy talked to him about how we can do this, you can do this. And he put his hand on his shoulder and said we can do this path by path and stone by stone.”

Abernathy agreed. Despite any flaws, it is that emotion that Abernathy appreciates.

“It is a movie and they captured the spirit of what we tried to accomplish but it just a movie. It is not history, it is not factual, it is dramatization,” she said. “My hats off to them for wanting to tell our story, it is a powerful story.”

Children can watch “Selma” (PG-13) for free on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Children 17 and younger can watch the movie for free Monday at Cinetopia Overland Park 18, 5655 West 135th St. Six showings are planned, starting at 11. The event is sponsored by Cinetopia and Magic 107.3. Admission is first-come, first-served.

Read our review.

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