The American historical drama "Selma" (2014), which depicts the marches for voting rights led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the mid 1960s, served as the perfect primer to Peggy Wallace Kennedy's talk after the MLK, Jr. Commission's film screening Monday night at the Carver Community Cultural Center.
Her father, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, is best known for standing in front of the University of Alabama in 1963, protesting the registration of two black students. She was 13 years old at the time. He later apologized and admitted to his daughter that he regretted his defense of segregation, but he is widely remembered as a symbol of segregation in the South.
Wallace Kennedy, 65, did not sugar coat that fact. She acknowledged her father’s mistakes and did not excuse them, but provided an explanation for his actions as governor in the mid '60s. Before he served as governor, Wallace Kennedy said her father was a progressive who advocated for the equal treatment of African-American lawyers in his court and frequently invited African-American attorneys to lunch so they could avoid the segregated cafes around the courthouse square.
George Wallace ran for governor in 1958 as a moderate on matters of race and lost, but won the election when he ran as a segregationist in 1962. Wallace Kennedy said she believes he chose to forgo his personal beliefs in order to win the election.
“His life’s story stands as a lesson to his seven grandsons – a lesson of the hazards of running away from a personal commitment to truth in order to gain power,” Wallace Kennedy said.
"Today, as we prepare to elect a new president, we see candidates who are like my father, who are willing to abandon the dignity of truth for the shame of winning on the backs of the oppressed and the powerless.”
She spoke with unwavering resolve, and will continue to advocate for peace and equality across the county, but there was a time when she struggled with the decision to stand up against her father’s politics or keep “living a life of quiet indifference.”
She made her decision one afternoon while visiting the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site with her husband and 8-year-old son. While observing photos of his grandfather standing in front of the schoolhouse door, her son sadly asked her, “Why did Papa do those things to other people?”
“I realized in that moment that I was at a crossroads in my life and the life of my son,” Wallace Kennedy said. “It was now time for me to do for my son what my father had never done for me. It was the first step in my journey of building a legacy of my own.”
The end of her speech was greeted with a round of applause and standing ovation from the audience. Wallace Kennedy’s husband, retired state Supreme Court justice Mark Kennedy, then joined her on stage to discuss specifics about voting rights in present day America, and more specifically, Texas, which has the lowest voter registration and turnout rates in the nation.
With his wife by his side, Kennedy advocated for reform of voting rights for ex-felons. He said 532,000 ex-felons cannot vote in Texas, which he thinks is a problem.
“We need to look for ways to change our legislation once we realize that ex-felons can marry, go to college and teach,” Kennedy said. “They can live their lives but they cannot vote.”
Following his short speech, the couple briefly answered questions from the audience and kindly thanked the audience for the graciousness and applause. As attendees filed out of the auditorium, audience member Claudia Rabago said she was taken aback by Wallace Kennedy’s sincerity in her recount of the past.
“I was not aware of her background,” Rabago said. “With politicians, you know what they do, but you never really hear about their children or what they are going through. What strikes me the most is knowing that when (Wallace Kennedy) was little, (what happened with her father) stuck with her and now she is trying to make a wrong right.”
The event, part of the MLK Commission's King Week event series, is just one of more than 100 included on the DreamWeek San Antonio calendar that culminates with the MLK March on Monday, Jan. 18. The City expects more than 150,000 participants in this year's march, one of the largest in the nation.
*Top image: Peggy Wallace Kennedy speaks to the audience at the Carver Community Cultural Center. Photo by Katie Walsh.