Kennedy shares story of reconciliation, forgiveness

Published 9:05 pm Monday, February 3, 2020

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On March 25, 2015, Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Peggy Wallace Kennedy, the daughter of former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, stood together on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol.

The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March.

For each of them, that moment was a personal fulfillment of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream that “…one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

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Perhaps, King never imagined that one of those little black girls and one of the little white girls who reached out and joined hands would be his own daughter and the daughter of the Alabama segregationist governor.

Peggy Wallace Kennedy spoke of that historic moment at the closing session of the 19th Annual Leadership Conference at Troy University on Saturday.

“It had all come to that moment,” Kennedy said.

For Kennedy, that was a defining moment in her life.  A moment of when she stood shoulder to shoulder with her past and faced the challenges that lay ahead.

Kennedy spoke of her childhood which was a time of discord, a life lived between the crooks and crannies of what was happening in her young world.

Her childhood was far from a lollipop world. Her father was the leading proponent of “segregation now, segregation forever.” He stood in the schoolhouse door in an attempt to prevent school de-segregation.

Edmund Pettus Bridge, where voting rights marchers were violently confronted by law enforcement personnel, and the election of her mother as Alabama’s governor were hallmarks of Kennedy’s high school years. 

In May 1968, Kennedy paid her last respects to her mother, Alabama’s governor. She soon joined her dad in his presidential campaign and faced angry demonstrators.

In May 1972, her dad was gunned down during an outdoor rally in Laurel, Maryland. Wallace was paralyzed from the waist down and never walked again.

“My father reached out and sought and received forgiveness and was elected to his last term as governor,” Kennedy said.

During those turbulent years, Kennedy lived in the shadows of history.

“I was judged for who I belonged to rather than who I was,” she said. “But in 1996, my family and I were in Atlanta and we toured the Martin Luther King historic sites — his church, his home and the museum that chronicled his life.”

But, Kennedy said it was the museum photos, those of the Edmund Pettis Bridge, those of the dogs in Birmingham and of Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door that impacted her son, who at that time was eight years old.

“He asked, ‘Why did Paw Paw do those things to other people?’” Kennedy said. “At that moment, I realized I was at a crossroads in my life and the life of my son. It was up to me to do for him what my father had never done for me.”

Kennedy said knew she had an obligation to raise the call of justice, for her sons and for others.

“The first step is building a legacy of my own,” she said. “It is up to me to help make things right, to raise up the cause of justice and break away from a painful past.

“Breaking away from a painful past is not always easy, but it is always right,” she said.

“Doing what is right means creating pathways that lead to truth and justice, facing the challenges ahead and living a life of purpose and hope.”

And knowing, she said, that no mountain top is too tall to climb.