This is an opinion column.
Peggy Wallace Kennedy went to political rallies with her dad – George Wallace – as he ran for president in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
She saw hate and anger that a child should not have to see. She felt a bitterness she did not at the time comprehend.
She didn’t know why protesters in the northeast threw ink on her new beige dress outside one of those rallies.
But then, she didn’t understand the virulence of her father’s most devoted supporters, either, or his desire to keep black people from attending the University of Alabama, or the mindless rage that drove the crowds to violence.
She understands now. She understands all too well. Her father was wrong.
“We cannot go backward,” she told a group of teachers at the Birmingham Public Library last week. “We have to go forward.”
Wallace Kennedy has written a book – “The Broken Road: George Wallace and a Daughter’s Journey to Reconciliation” – that is scheduled for release later this year. But her words have seldom seemed more relevant than they are now, as the president’s tweets enflame the racists, as his words echo the populist demagoguery of Wallace himself, as crowds jeer at our differences.
“Unfortunately it does look like the ‘60s now,” Wallace Kennedy said. “Each of us individually need to act with compassion and pray for our democracy. I hope we don’t go back. But it looks like where we are slipping … that seems to be where the top is taking us.”
Wallace Kennedy never said Donald Trump’s name out loud, but she likened his politics to that of her father’s tactics, only worse.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said. “I saw daddy a lot in 2016.”
Because it works. It was a simple and brilliant and dangerous strategy perfected by Wallace and used by politicians across the South and the nation ever since, though rarely as effectively or obviously as with Trump. Fanning the flames of fury works on crowds way better than policy solutions or wonkish approaches to governmental reform. Play on the resentments and you never have to get too deep into answers.
Until the consequences come, as Wallace saw in Alabama and especially Birmingham. Until the rallies let out and the bombings and beatings and burnings begin.
“The two greatest motivators at (Dad’s) rallies were fear and hate,” Wallace Kennedy said. “There was no policy solution, just white middle-class anger.”
Then and now.
But it is when Peggy Wallace Kennedy speaks of Rep. John Lewis that her voice breaks.
In Selma, in 1965, George Wallace sent troopers to meet black marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they tried to make their way toward Montgomery. It became known as Bloody Sunday as black people were beaten and gassed and humiliated. A trooper – at least one – hit Lewis in the head with a billy club and broke his skull.
Marchers on another day would make that 54-mile trek to the state capital to confront Wallace. But he refused to meet with them.
Peggy Wallace Kennedy thought about all that as she met Lewis for the first time. What would he say to her, the daughter of George Wallace? And what could she say in return?
But she didn’t have to say anything at all. Lewis took her hand, and the two of them walked over that bridge together. She saw it as the fulfillment, as least in one shining moment, of Martin Luther King’s Dream.
We can’t go back. We must go forward.
John Archibald, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a columnist for Reckon by AL.com. His column appears in The Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Register and AL.com. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Date Posted: Wednesday, July 31st, 2019 , Total Page Views: 348
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