Her father was the most dangerous racist in America. She wants a different legacy for her sons
She was living in Clayton, Alabama, then a tiny segregated town in the Jim Crow South. Her father was George Wallace, the future Alabama governor and archvillain of the civil rights movement who stood in schoolhouse doors to block black students from enrolling and once declared, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
That version of her father, though, didn’t yet exist for Peggy Wallace in 1958. She knew her father as the charmer with the Brylcreemed hair who handed her M&M’s, called her “sugah” and never talked politics at home.
But her world shifted one day when her mother sent her to a black seamstress to get some clothes mended.
As she climbed the steps to the seamstress’s home, Peggy heard the woman’s voice from inside the house say, “George Wallace don’t want his daughter to be up in no n***** house.”
She froze, pirouetted, slowly walked back down the steps and went home. She never said anything to the woman.
Her book is an unflinching look at how her father’s politics warped his personal life and clouded his daughter’s conscience. Kennedy still occasionally encounters people who shun her because of her father, who died in 1998.
“If I had asked daddy in the summer of 1958 if he was a racist, I’m not sure what he would have said,” she wrote about the time of her encounter with the black seamstress.
“For many years, I felt obligated to defend Daddy’s character and actions. I took the official Wallace line: Daddy was a segregationist but not a racist.”
Not anymore. With startling candor, Kennedy takes on her own denial as well as her father’s. The memoir also deftly recreates the small Southern world she grew up in and the strange reality of Jim Crow, where whites treated black servants like beloved family members in private but second-class citizens in public.
The memoir is filled with some heart-stopping moments: Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon, offering a startling tribute to Kennedy in 2017 that left her speechless; her father reaching out to black people for forgiveness in a church near the end of his life after a would-be assassin’s bullet had paralyzed him; Kennedy holding hands with the Rev. Bernice King, King’s youngest daughter, in 2015 as they retraced the steps of the historic Selma to Montgomery march.
“I could not help but wonder how the course of history might have been changed if Martin Luther King and daddy had known that one day, right down here in Alabama, that little black girl and that little white girl holding hands would be their own daughters,” Kennedy wrote about that moment.
Today Kennedy has found her own public voice as an activist and speaker who has been honored by several civil and human rights groups. She lives in an elegant home in Montgomery, Alabama, with her husband of 45 years, Justice H. Mark Kennedy, the co-author of her book.
They are the parents of two adult sons. Leigh Kennedy is an Iraq War veteran and a US Army Major in Washington, D.C., while Burns Kennedy is a data analyst for Ebsco, an information services company based in Birmingham, Alabama.
Warm and gracious in person, Kennedy, 69, talked with CNN about her memoir. Her answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Were there unexpected emotions you experienced writing this book?
Yes, of course. Sometimes we would have to take a break two or three times a day to kind of let me catch up. My mother’s illness and passing away was difficult for me to relive. I had to take a few days to kind of recover from that. And of course my father’s illness and dying took me a couple of days.
That scene with the black seamstress, the one who said your father wouldn’t want you in her house — why did that make a mark?
I was eight years old and I just didn’t understand why she would have said that. It hurt me very badly. I couldn’t see her, but I knew she was behind the screen door. It really hurt me. I didn’t understand. Of course I do now. It just stayed with me.
You also wrote about the first time you heard supporters thank your father for keeping them [black people] in their place. How did those remarks affect you?
I didn’t know what they were talking about but later on, of course, I did. When he was inaugurated in 1963 I was 12 years old. And I was standing on his left when he said those words: “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” People just roared and cheered. I did not understand what those words meant.
Well five months later, when he stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama [a failed attempt to block the enrollment of two black students] I understood them. And in my heart I thought it was wrong. I remember when a man came up to my father and said thank you for keeping them out of our schools, I remember thinking, they belong in our schools. His politics were not my politics.
That surprises me. You knew early on that you had different politics. Where did that come from?
I don’t know. I really didn’t have a voice growing up. Nobody asked me my opinion. And so when my father stood in the schoolhouse doors, everyone assumed that his politics were mine. My close friends knew that I didn’t agree, but I was just never asked. I never mentioned it to my father but I think my father knew in a way that I disagreed with him. He just never said anything.
You wrote that your father didn’t have many close friends and needed to be around people. Where did that loneliness come from?
He had a very hard time having one-on-one conversations. He had to have a crowd of people around him. Most politicians have that problem. The crowd is what they get satisfaction from. But my father and I were very close. We loved each other much.
Why were you relieved someone tried to assassinate your father? You mention that in the book.
It was the only way I can describe it. It was something I woke up with every day, wondering if this was the day and dreading thinking that way. And so this had been going on for a long time. So when I was told that he was shot, it was relief that I felt. It was over. I didn’t have to wake up anther day and wonder if this was the day. I felt very guilty about feeling relieved. I felt guilty all of these years about this. But there’s no other way to describe it. It was a relief.
Why talk publicly about these painful memories? Are you trying to make up for what your father did?
No, I wanted to leave a legacy for my two sons different from the legacy that was left for me. In 1996, we took Burns [her youngest son] to the Martin Luther King Jr. historic site in Atlanta. Burns was eight years old at the time. And when we went to the museum, we came to an exhibit where Dr. King fought for equal rights in Alabama and there were photos. There were photos of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the bombed-out 16th Street Baptist Church and George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse doors.
And he turned and asked me, “Why did Paw Paw do these things to people?” I knew I had to do something for my children that my father never did for me. I said, “I don’t know why Paw Paw did those things to people, but I know he was wrong. So maybe it’ll be up to you and me to help make things right.”
In 2009, I was asked to go to Selma [the site in Alabama of an epic civil rights campaign]. There I am with John Lewis, Joseph Lowery and Jesse Jackson. It was wonderful. And I crossed the bridge with John Lewis and he held my hand. He gave me courage to find my voice.
At the time I thought to myself, I can use this voice to speak up and speak out about something I’m passionate about. Maybe I can build a legacy for my two sons that’s different than the ones left for me. That’s when I started speaking up.
What do you think your father would say about President Trump?
Oh gosh. My father is such a different person than he is. I think my father would be disappointed, and probably like most Americans, just wondering what’s happening.
Do you think your father was underrated as a politician? He was known as a bombastic racist, but do people give him credit for his political ability?
He was very smart, politically savvy. He did keep saying, I’ll never be rehabilitated. I’ll always be known as a segregationist and a racist. I think he was kind of bitter about that. He said other politicians had been rehabilitated but they’ll never rehabilitate me.
A lot of the same racial tensions you grew up with are spreading across the country today. Are you worried about the future?
I’m very optimistic about the future. I think Americans are going to stand up and not stand by anymore. They’re going to stand shoulder to shoulder like they did in the civil rights movement and when they stand shoulder to shoulder they’re going to face the challenges that lie ahead. America is about all of us, not just some of us.