Few people loom larger over Southern history than George Wallace, the Alabama governor who became the face of segregation. The Wallaces built a political dynasty in Alabama and they did it professing segregation. He was once called “the most dangerous racist in America.”
Few people realize how close George Wallace came to moving from the Alabama governor’s mansion to the White House. An assassination attempt ended a surging presidential campaign in 1972.
In many ways, Alabama and America are still wrestling with the legacy of George Wallace. But how would you confront his legacy if he were your father?
That’s the challenge for his daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy.
She, along with her siblings, are the only people in American history who were raised by two governors. Peggy’s mother Lurleen Wallace died in office of cancer and her death cast a long shadow over the Wallace family.
Today, Peggy Kennedy is an outspoken advocate for civil rights, something she says would make her father proud. That surprised me. And so did her personal story, laid out in her new memoir The Broken Road.
On this week’s episode of the Reckon Interview, I speak with Peggy Wallace Kennedy about her book and how she’s working to transform a legacy of hate and division, into a mission of love and reconciliation.
Here are a few excerpts from the episode to get you started.
Peggy Wallace Kennedy on choosing a legacy different from her father’s
I wanted to leave a legacy for my sons different from the legacy that was left for me. I guess in a way, that would be the opposite of what was left for me. I knew that I was passionate about peace and reconciliation.
And so when I crossed [the Edmund Pettus] Bridge with John Lewis in 2009, and he just held my hand and I’d never met John before. And he just was so kind. And he just showed me that reconciliation and forgiveness can restore the soul and heal a human heart. He just gave me the courage to find my own voice. And I never had one, and I thought, wow.
You know, he took me over to the side of the rail and we were marching and looking over the water and he said, “well, sister, I need to move on now.” And I thought, now’s the time for me to speak up. I want to leave a legacy for my two sons. And I’m going to start building it today. And it’s going to be on peace and reconciliation. He gave me the courage to do that. He is one of these people that makes you believe in yourself, tells you that you can do anything you want to do. He calls me sister. I call him brother. And we grew up 38 miles from each other. But in reality, we were oceans apart.
And years later I wrote John a letter. And I said, I’ve crossed many bridges in my life. And I’ve crossed many more. The most important bridge I would will have ever crossed in my life will be the one I crossed with you.
Peggy Wallace Kennedy on the day her father was shot
I was attending what was then Troy State University, which is now of course Troy University, a wonderful university here in Alabama, and waiting for class. I’d gone into the classroom and I sat down. And I remember looking up at the clock. It just so happens that at the time I looked up at the clock is the exact time he was shot. I find that very interesting. Yeah. But I got up and went outside the classroom next to the window, just to wait for some friends. And one of my friends came up and she said, Why are you here? And I said well I’m here for class and she said, well you haven’t heard. I said no, cause she thought really maybe that I’d heard that he’d been shot in the arm or something. And she said, Oh, you don’t know. I said know what? She said your father’s been shot. I think that after I got over the initial shock, relief was what I felt.
That that day had come. And I know, I don’t know how to explain it. I know it sounds bad, but that day had come. It was over. I didn’t have to get up every day and wonder if this was the day. I didn’t know if he was dead or alive. But now I didn’t have to get up. And when we got from Troy to Montgomery, and I found out that he was alive. I was just I was so happy. I didn’t know what to do. That’s what I felt. I just felt relief. and have to wake up having to wait. No. I have to wake up another day.
I think that after he was shot, there were so many things about my father… when he could walk, he walked fast, he ate fast. He ate standing up. He ate walking, he walking home from church. He’d say, hurry up, hurry up, sugar, hurry up. I’d say, Wait, Daddy, wait. And then when he was shot, the irony of all that…the injury that he could never walk again was just very odd to me. That would be the injury that he would have. I think the change started then. One of the visitors he had was Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm.
She was running for president at the time. She came and prayed with him and talked with him. Now she shut her campaign down for a week. And one of her workers was adamant that she not shut her campaign down and was very, very upset. She said, you’re going to see a racist segregationist this man. She said, listen, this is what I’m going to do because it’s the right thing to do.
And it was not long after Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm left. Other people came and saw him. Ethel Kennedy came in and sat and prayed with him. I could just see something in my father’s eyes that changed. I think that while [Wallace and Chisolm] were talking, he said, what are your people gonna think? And she said, I don’t care what my people think I would not want this to happen to anyone else.
And the worker that was so adamant and so outraged that she had come to see my father was Representative Barbara Lee from California, who is one of my dearest friends now. And when we got together years and years ago, and she told me that story, we just we’ve talked about it since. But later on, when Congresswoman Chisholm had some bills that she want needed to get passed, and they were bills that concerned the South. She called my father and my father did whatever, governors do. I don’t know. And the bills got passed.
For Peggy Wallace Kennedy’s thoughts on how which politicians today remind her of George Wallace, her thoughts on her mother’s legacy, and more, listen to the full episode here.