Fifty years ago this March, two girls viewed the 1965 Selma voting rights marches from two very different corners of Alabama.
Donzaleigh Abernathy, then the 7-year-old daughter of civil rights activist Ralph David Abernathy, enjoyed a ground-level perspective, walking with her father for some of the approximately 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery.
Peggy Wallace Kennedy, the 15-year-old daughter of Alabama Gov. George Wallace, watched the marches on television.
“I lived behind the gates of the governor’s mansion,” she said.
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She was the daughter of the nation’s most prominent promoter of segregation. But several times since she and Abernathy met years ago, they have shared the same stage to discuss the legacy of the Selma protests and the civil rights movement.
“Now we are together,” Kennedy said. “We envision a better America, step by step.”
Kennedy and Abernathy visited Kansas City last week to address employees of the Burns & McDonnell engineering firm. Before that session, the two described for The Star their recollections of the 1965 marches.
Abernathy was among about 25,000 who gathered at the Alabama state Capitol to hear Martin Luther King Jr. exhort his followers in support of voters rights.
“It was pretty thrilling,” she said.
“I always believed that when Daddy and Uncle Martin were with us, we were safe, even though we received daily death threats and they were serious.”
Kennedy opposed her father’s hardline rhetoric, represented by the statement “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever,” which brought cheers during his January 1963 gubernatorial inaugural. Later that year, he blocked a door at the University of Alabama in a symbolic attempt to prevent the school’s integration.
“I was never asked for my opinion,” Kennedy said, adding that her father “was a politician first and a father second.”
But in his later years, after a 1972 assassination attempt left Wallace paralyzed from the waist down, his racial views changed. He sometimes asked forgiveness at African-American churches. He served four terms as Alabama governor; during his last election, in 1982, he garnered more than 90 percent of the black vote.
It was during those years that Kennedy and her father shared long dialogues on civil rights. “He told me that he regretted his stance on segregation,” she said.
“What I came to realize was my father never planted a bomb, he never hit anybody with a billy club, but he did the greater sin: He created an environment for other people to go out and to do that,” Kennedy said.
Both she and Abernathy believe civil rights activism today to be just as relevant as it was 50 years ago. That is especially true in Missouri, Abernathy said, given the unrest that followed the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
“Everybody is looking at Missouri,” Abernathy said. “You all have got to realize that and accept it, and hopefully you all can be the catalyst for change in America.”
“We must go forward,” Kennedy added. “We can’t stop.”
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Oscar best picture nominee “Selma” is about the dramatic march from Alabama’s Selma to its capital, Montgomery, an event that helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Donzaleigh Abernathy and Peggy Wallace Kennedy have watched the film. Here are their thoughts:
Abernathy: “Lyndon Johnson was depicted as the obstacle when in fact, it was the exact opposite. So every time President Johnson was brought on the screen that upset me.… 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.”
Still, she appreciates the film. “They captured the spirit of what we tried to accomplish.”
Kennedy: “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. 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.”
Watch “Selma” (PG-13) for free Monday: Children ages 17 and younger can watch the movie for free Monday at Cinetopia Overland Park 18 at 5655 W. 135th St. There will be six showings starting at 11 a.m. The event is sponsored by Cinetopia and Magic 107.3.