Lewis Diuguid

New leaders needed for 21st century civil rights movement, speakers tell Kansas City audience

Donzaleigh Abernathy showed powerful photographs that were shot during the civil rights movement. This one is of her father, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (left), and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (right), whose birthday the nation will celebrate on Monday. His actual birthday was Thursday. He would have been 86 years old.
Donzaleigh Abernathy showed powerful photographs that were shot during the civil rights movement. This one is of her father, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (left), and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (right), whose birthday the nation will celebrate on Monday. His actual birthday was Thursday. He would have been 86 years old. The Kansas City Star

On what would have been the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 86th birthday, hundreds of people in Kansas City were told Thursday that the next civil rights movement and leader may emerge from Missouri.

“We cannot go back,” said Peggy Wallace Kennedy, the daughter of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who shared the stage with Donzaleigh Abernathy, the daughter of the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. “We have to move forward.

“What occurred in Missouri is a catalyst. We still have a long way to go.”

Wallace Kennedy and Abernathy received a standing ovation after speaking in the auditorium at Burns & McDonnell during the “Children of Selma: A Dialogue with the Daughters of Rev. Ralph Abernathy & George Wallace.” They deserved that applause and more.

Adding to Wallace Kennedy’s comments about the unending protests in Ferguson, Mo., and nationwide after the fatal police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9 and a state grand jury declining to file charges in the case, Abernathy said, “It’s like a volcano erupting.”

Other examples in 2014 of unarmed black males being killed by police include 43-year-old Eric Garner on July 17 in New York and 12-year-old Tamir Rice on Nov. 22 in Cleveland. Abernathy, who projected several photos on a big screen of great moments in the civil rights movement, said the killings of black males must stop.

“A young leader will emerge,” she said. “That young leader might be in Ferguson, Mo.

“I know that the world is looking at Missouri for race relations. We’re looking at you all for answers. Where you’re put in an extraordinary circumstance you will rise to the occasion.”

I had heard Abernathy and Wallace Kennedy speak together in 2013. Wallace Kennedy then in Oakland, Calif., as in Kansas City recounted her father’s past. He infamously stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama in an attempt to block two black students from enrolling. Wallace also said “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”

“Father didn’t plant the bombs or hit anybody with a billy club. But he did the greater sin,” Wallace Kennedy said. “He created the environment for others to go out and do that.”

Wallace, however, changed after an assassination attempt in 1972 that left him paralyzed. Wallace Kennedy said she also realized that for the sake of her children, racial harmony and peace were the only way forward.

“I didn’t want my children to be under the shadow of the schoolhouse door,” she said. The transformation was “like a veil came off me.”

“It was a burden that was lifted from my shoulders.”

She has participated in civil rights marches and speaks for the cause.

When asked about the new movie, “Selma,” the two women said it captured the emotion and desire of people in the 1960s, seeking the right to vote. However, Abernathy said it was historically inaccurate. It failed to include President Lyndon Johnson’s role in the march to get the the Voting Rights Act of 1965 signed into law.

She said it also relegated her father to a lesser character when he and King were co-architects of the civil rights movement in fighting racism, discrimination and prejudice.

“History is told by those who are fortunate to live the longest,” Abernathy told the audience. “My father and Uncle Martin didn’t have the gift of longevity.”

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., at age 39, and Ralph Abernathy died April 17, 1990, in Atlanta at age 64.

Despite civil rights gains, Wallace Kennedy said 34 percent of African Americans in Alabama have lost the right to vote because they are ex-felons. A more depressing alarm was sounded by her spouse, former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Mark Kennedy. He was handed the microphone and told the audience that all felons in Alabama lose their right to vote whether for possession of marijuana or murder.

Getting reinstated is a process that most ex-offenders won’t go through because they are “fearful of the system.” He added that three years from now, there will be more African Americans who cannot vote than there were disenfranchised black people in 1965.

The loss of the vote is also a nationwide problem, though the march for the Voting Rights Act took place 50 years ago. But because of a Supreme Court ruling gutting its effectiveness, voter identification laws and other tricks to disenfranchise people, the cry for constitutional rights for all continues.

New leaders with effective new strategies must emerge — just as King and Abernathy did 60 years ago.

“If America doesn’t come together, I am afraid for our future,” Abernathy said.

To reach Lewis W. Diuguid, send call 816-234-4723 or send email to Ldiuguid@kcstar.com.

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