Peggy Wallace Kennedy sees parallels between the protests and unrest occurring now over the deaths of black males at the hands of police and what occurred during the civil rights movement that left her father on the “wrong side of history.”
“There’s something very wrong with the system,” Wallace Kennedy told me after she received the Human Rights Award last month from the Brown Foundation, commemorating the 61st anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, ending legal segregation. It brings back memories of the resistance more than half a century earlier that her father, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, led against integration.
He infamously stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama to try to block two black students from enrolling, and said in 1963, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”
Wallace Kennedy, in a speech at Washburn University, said, “George Wallace was on the wrong side of history, riding the waves of fear rather than seeking justice on the wings of eagles.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, people’s “songs of despair” turned to defiance, which is what we are seeing after the deaths of black males by police in Oakland, Calif.; Ferguson, Mo.; New York; North Charleston, S.C.; Cleveland; Madison, Wis., and Baltimore. In protests people chant “black lives matter.” Some have turned violent with unrest. That’s similar to the civil rights movement, Wallace Kennedy recalled.
She remembered police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, beating people on Bloody Sunday 50 years ago in the march for voting rights in Alabama. She remembered police dogs and fire hoses turned on black children and the many arrests in the civil disobedience led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She remembered the bombing by white supremacists of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four little girls. “It all seemed so illogical to me,” she said.
“You take two steps forward and now we’re going three steps back,” Wallace Kennedy told me. “We’ve come 50 years and now we look like we’re going backward.”
A New York Times/CBS News poll last month on perceptions of race relations found that 61 percent of Americans think race relations are generally bad, up from 44 percent after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 9 in Ferguson. Overall, 44 percent of Americans think police are more likely to use deadly force on African Americans. That’s up from 37 percent in August and 40 percent in December.
But Wallace Kennedy holds out hope that change is possible if people like her father could reach out to others. In 1972 during his presidential bid, Wallace was shot in an assassination attempt and left paralyzed. He changed, becoming more open to others.
“All of us can rise above the history of yesterday and look to ... the promise of new beginnings,” Wallace Kennedy said. “We must know where we come from before we can chart a new course for the future.”
Wallace Kennedy said people must follow Robert Frost’s poem “The Road not Taken” and take the path less traveled to make a difference. She said that women like her who see wrong happening must come out of the shadow of men and seek change.
“There will be no more stands in the schoolhouse door, no more fire hoses turned on children,” she said. However, kids still die from a lack of proper health care. No more beatings are occurring on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but people are losing their right to vote because of voter identification laws.
“Tolerance must be more than what we believe,” Wallace Kennedy told the audience. People must live it and teach it in a “life of purpose and hope. Find a path where truth and justice will light your way. Make better tomorrows happen.”
In places like Ferguson, new leaders can emerge. They must establish a dialogue with authorities and keep it going so that through talking and listening everyone can help to create a better future for America.