Peggy Wallace Kennedy opens up about her father's hateful, problematic legacy — and creating a new one for her sons
In 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace changed the course of the Civil Rights Movement when he stood in front of the doors of the University of Alabama to protest the enrollment of two black students. In an interview featured in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, his daughter Peggy Wallace Kennedy discusses that day, how she feels about having a father who was the symbol of the pro-segregationist movement, and their individual paths to a new and better legacy.
“I just knew it was wrong. I thought he was wrong to stand there — that was my feeling at 13,” says 69-year-old Wallace Kennedy, remembering Wallace’s symbolic — but damaging — doorway protest. “We never spoke of it. I was never asked what my opinion was on that. I really did not have a voice.”
Now Wallace Kennedy not only has a voice, but is also using her platform to promote a very different type of message from that of her father. For 10 years, she traveled the country to speak about “peace and reconciliation” and has received honors like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Rosa Parks Legacy Award. Most recently, she published her memoir, The Broken Road: George Wallace and a Daughter’s Journey to Reconciliation. She hopes her book will help her spread a message of hope.
“Leaving a painful past behind is not always easy, but it is always right,” she says. “And I hope people will understand that they can find their voice no matter how old they are, because I found my voice later in life. I want people to be inspired, to try to live a life of inspiration.”
Wallace Kennedy has had to overcome many painful moments because of her demagogue father, even though she loved him deeply. Her father’s hateful rhetoric incited violence throughout the south — including Bloody Sunday in 1965, when Rep. John Lewis and other peaceful marchers were beaten by state troopers after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The troopers had been deployed by Gov. Wallace.
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In her book, Wallace Kennedy argued that her father adopted racist and segregationist rhetoric in order to win the governorship. (George Wallace was elected as the governor of Alabama four times and ran for president four times. One infamous line in Wallace’s 1963 inauguration speech, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever,” would stay with him for the rest of his life.)
“He became the candidate who ran on race and segregation for power. Power over principle,” she explains. “And he used that because he knew that was the only way he could win, and he would have done anything to win. It was his dream to be governor.”
In 1972, Gov. Wallace was shot. He was injured so badly he remained a paraplegic for the rest of his life. But the injury was also a turning point for the former governor.
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“At that time, we were told that he would only live for five years as a paraplegic. We were devastated of course, but he lived 25 years, thankfully,” Wallace Kennedy remembers. “He reflected on his mortality, and he just knew he was wrong on segregation and race.”
The politician went on to give interviews and speeches, asking the African American community for forgiveness.
“I have learned what suffering means. I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure,” he told the congregation at Dexter Avenue Church in 1979, according to the book. “I know I contributed to that pain and I can only ask for forgiveness.”
While many people said they forgave him, others questioned Wallace’s sincerity. But not his daughter.
“His asking for forgiveness was genuine, and his forgiveness from the African American community was genuine,” she says. “I think my father needed their forgiveness, because it was like the last piece of a puzzle for his heart, and he needed that.”
According to Wallace Kennedy, her dad’s biggest regret was for the violence he caused. “He knew he’d been wrong on race,” she says. “He’d created a climate where other people did horrific things, violence and bloodshed.”
Now Wallace Kennedy is focused on forging a new path for herself and a better legacy for her two sons. (Once, while visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and Museum, her son Burns asked her, “Why did Papaw do those things to other people?” she recalls. From then on, she determined to “help make things right,” she says.)
She has never apologized for her father, Wallace Kennedy explains. Instead, she’s focused on spreading a message of “unconditional love” and “tolerance.”
“Today we live in a divided country. America is hurting. There’s hope for America. That’s in general what my message is,” she explains. “That we should believe in ourselves and that we should see people with our hearts rather than our minds.”
She continues: “Tolerance is one thing I believe in strongly. You live that by example. Dr. King’s teachings are needed more today than ever: Forgiveness, peace, love, non-violence.”
The Broken Road is on sale now.