We must have the courage to break from our past, no matter how painful that process can be.
Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of former Alabama governors George and Lurleen Wallace, delivered that message Saturday to participants in the second day of the Leadership Conference Celebrating African American History Month at Troy University.
“I’m joining you in the hopes for a better America where all God’s children have a chance to make a better future,” said Kennedy, whose father, Gov. George Wallace, was one of the country’s most powerful voices for segregation during the Civil Rights Movement. “The moments that will one day matter are those when we conquered our fears, stood our ground, sacrificed someone we loved and stood up for the rights of a perfect stranger because it was the right and righteous thing to do.”
Kennedy explained to the crowd how she lost her childhood to the hatred and vitriol that largely defined the 1960s in Alabama.
“There were no hugs or kisses, no going-away parties, no opportunities to say goodbye to my childhood,” she said. “When we left Clayton, I was 11 years old. I was 12 years old when my father loudly proclaimed, ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.’ I was 13 when he stood in the schoolhouse door. I was 15 when a young John Lewis and other marchers were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.”
These experiences defined her youth, as did her mother’s death in 1968. For many years, she was defined by them.
She feared she’d never escape the shadow of her father’s words and actions, words and actions she said he regretted and for which he sought atonement later in life.
An experience with her young son in 1996 changed her life and made her a voice and advocate for change moving forward.
“Our then-8-year-old son Burns went with my husband and me to Atlanta to visit the Dr. Martin Luther King historic site and museum,” Kennedy said. “We sat silent in Dr. King’s church, stood solemn at his graveside. We toured his home, walked to the newly constructed museum that chronicled his life. As we moved through the exhibits, we turned a corner to face photos of the Edmund Pettis Bridge, the dogs in Birmingham and George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door.”
Her son looked up at her, confused and sad.
“He asked, ‘Why did Paw Paw do those things to other people?’ I realized at that moment I was at a crossroad in my life and the life of my son,” Kennedy said. “It was up to me to do for my son what my father had never done for me. I knew I had an obligation to my two sons to raise the call for justice in my lifetime. Breaking away from a painful past is not always easy, but it is always right.”
Kennedy challenged conference attendees to stand up for justice and to live with empathy and understanding for others.
“I hope each of you invite opportunities to inspire others, serve others and inspire a legacy of your own,” she said. “Today you must challenge one another to stand your ground, be courageous, proclaim a victory of your own and know that your life will not have been lived in vain.”
The Leadership Conference Celebrating African American History Month was launched in 2002 by the University and the City of Troy to promote dialogue that fosters multicultural collaboration and equip diverse leaders with tools to better serve their organizations and communities. This year’s theme is “Effective Leadership: Civically, Economically and Socially.”
Kennedy has participated on special panels and delivered keynote addresses at national and state conferences, government agencies, corporate and special events as well as colleges, universities and high schools. She has participated in programs at the National Archives, Congressional Forums with Congressman John Lewis and on the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March joined Rev. Bernice King, the daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol as a living testament to the power of change and reconciliation.
In recognition of her mission and work, Kennedy has received, among others, the Rosa Parks Legacy Award, Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Woman of Courage Award, Emmitt Till Legacy Foundation; Achievement Award, Oakwood University; I am a Man Award, April Fourth Foundation; Human Rights Award, The Brown Foundation; and the MLK Commission Award, San Antonio, Texas.