Hope Bloomed in Alabama
Just two years ago, 65-year-old Peggy Wallace Kennedy stood on the steps of the Alabama Capitol and renounced the acts of hate her father had committed there.
This was no small moment. Kennedy’s father was the late Gov. George Wallace, who was an over-my-dead-body champion of segregation in the South.
I was one of hundreds in the audience that day watching history unfold as Wallace’s daughter locked arms with Rep. John Lewis. Fifty years earlier, Lewis had been badly beaten by Alabama state troopers ordered by Wallace to stop protesters’ peaceful march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Lewis and his fellow activists marched for black Americans’ right to vote. The mounted troopers, wielding clubs and their governor’s blessing, unleashed their rage on the unarmed protesters. Lewis, who was bloodied and bludgeoned, barely survived.
“My friend,” Lewis called Peggy Wallace Kennedy 50 years later. “My sister.”
As I wrote that day, Kennedy spoke in a soft and sometimes quivering voice as she declared, “It was here that I heard my father say the words ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.'”
Barack Obama’s presidency had inspired her to share publicly her private longing to leave a different legacy for her children, but her private journey had started decades earlier. When her son Burns was a little boy, Kennedy and her husband took him to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. The child, she said in her speech, “stood still as the truth of his family’s past washed over him.”
Burns turned to his mother and asked, “Why did Paw Paw do those things to other people?”
Kennedy knelt down beside her son and pulled him close before answering. “Paw Paw never told me why he did those things, but I know that he was wrong. So maybe it will just have to be up to me and you to help make things right.”
I left Alabama at the end of that momentous day in 2015 feeling more hopeful about the future of our country. I cling to the smallest signs of progress, I readily confess, but that was no ordinary moment in time — or in the South. There was something restorative in watching George Wallace’s daughter stand strong against the racism we knew was still roiling in our country — something so hopeful in the image of her walking side by side with John Lewis.
And now here I am, more than two years later, joining millions of other Americans who’ve just witnessed hope bloom again in Alabama.
I am writing this less than 24 hours after Alabama voters, by a slim but glorious majority, elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate. Doug Jones — please read this next part out loud — successfully prosecuted in the early 2000s two Ku Klux Klan members for killing four black girls in a Birmingham church bombing in 1963.
That’s a man who believes in the long arc of the moral universe.
Jones is pro-choice and against pretty much everything Roy Moore stands for as a Bible-thumping peddler of hate who wielded God as a weapon even as multiple women accused him of sexually assaulting them as teenagers. It’s true that Jones barely won, but it’s also true that Donald Trump’s full-throated endorsement of Moore failed to stop him.
Again, that long arc.
When I watched Jones giving his victory speech late Tuesday night, I thought of Peggy Wallace Kennedy. Two years ago, she talked about how she wanted a different legacy for her family than the one her father left them and how the only way to do that was for her to step out of the shadows.
“For so long, I’ve been somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife,” she told me in a telephone interview the day after she gave that speech on the Alabama Capitol steps. “I stayed home and took care of the children. I was always in the crowd, never a leader; always learning, never teaching.”
Anyone who has ever stood for anything has to take that first step.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism.