By Carole Copeland Thomas
I did not know her or even recognize her in late September when I sat on the same church pew with her on that fateful day. We were sitting on opposite ends but remained resolute and reflective on the occasion. And we both were featured speakers, paying tributes to a dedicated civil rights icon, whose funeral would last for more than four hours in Atlanta, Georgia.
We were both attending the funeral of one of my oldest and dearest friends on the planet. Both paying tribute to Juanita Jones Abernathy, the widow of Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, the closest associate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My connection to Juanita and that of many others that day were understandable. That included the King children, Bernice and Martin Luther King, III, who sat two pews behind us. It also included Representative John Lewis, the United States Congressman, who was badly beaten as a young student during the 1965 March on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Congressman Lewis sat right in front of me, and we chatted briefly before the funeral started.
We were all predictable attendees, devoted to the Abernathy family and steadfast advocates for civil rights and social justice for all.
It was Peggy Wallace Kennedy whose presence marked a startling change in the annals of American history. The daughter of one of the country’s most vile segregationists invited to speak at the funeral of one of her father’s former arch enemies. Peggy’s father: former Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace.
George Wallace, who died in 1998 and was struck and paralyzed by an assassin’s bullet in 1972, was a champion racist and orchestrator of some of the worst civil rights violations in modern times. The assassination attempt changed his racial ideology, but the damage he had done for years will never be forgotten.
It’s his daughter, Peggy, who is now trying the right the wrongs of his past. And she’s reaching out to the country’s racial justice warriors to prove that she’s genuine, that she cares and that she sees the world differently from her dad.
Her father’s racial hatred was notorious. He was a first-term governor in 1965 when John Lewis, a young student from Troy, Alabama, suffered a fractured skull at the hands of the Alabama state troopers during the Selma March. Governor Wallace’s famous 1963 gubernatorial inaugural speech stated the following:
“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
So much for one daughter to overcome.
Yet Peggy Wallace Kennedy’s steadfast determination to walk in a different path from her father found her invited to speak at Juanita Abernathy’s funeral. Her remarks were carefully crafted and poignant. Her tributes to Juanita beautifully woven into the tapestry of reconciliation and peace.
During her remarks at the funeral, Peggy said, “As for me…she believed in me…in who I was rather than who I belonged to. She was my friend. Juanita helped changed the landscape of America for the benefit of all. She stood steadfast in the belief that all lives matter.”
Following her five minute tribute, she walked right over to John Lewis, who hugged and embraced her with love and admiration. During his remarks, he said, “Peggy Wallace Kennedy, thank you for bearing witness to the truth.”
For an extended time, she hugged Juanita’s younger daughter, Hollywood actress Donzaleigh Abernathy, signaling the times have changed, and there’s no room for returning to the racial hatred of the past.
Peggy Wallace Davis has written a new memoir, The Broken Road: George Wallace And A Daughter’s Journey To Reconciliation. I certainly plan on reading the book and inviting Peggy on my new podcast that will start in 2020. Perhaps it will give new clues to why her father basked in the pool of hatred as he climbed the political ladder of success in the deep South of the 1960s. Forgiveness can sometimes take generations as the healing process seeps into our soul. My hope is that her mission and her message will cause us all to look deeply inside of ourselves to find new ways to build cross-cultural bridges to our future.
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Carole Copeland Thomas is a 27 year speaker, trainer and consultant specializing in global diversity, empowerment, multiculturalism and leadership issues.