As a teenager in 1963, Peggy Wallace Kennedy watched her father, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, stand in front of the doors of a University of Alabama auditorium to prevent the enrollment of the first African American students at the school.
As governor, his staunch segregationist policies made him one of the most infamous politicians in American history. His name became an enduring symbol of racial intolerance.
In her new memoir, “The Broken Road: George Wallace and a Daughter’s Journey to Reconciliation,” Wallace Kennedy reveals how her father went from being a trustee at a historically black college, to being an enforcer and enabler of anti-black policies. She also describes what it was like to grow up in a household where politics animated and motivated her father more than being a husband and parent. She is still dealing with the legacy left to her.
She talked with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about growing up a Wallace during one of the most pivotal eras of the 2oth century. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
AJC: You write that a visit with your son 23 years ago to the King Center on Auburn Avenue was the genesis of this book, because while there he saw the infamous picture of your father standing in the school house door to stop the integration of the University of Alabama. He asked you why your father had done “those things to other people.” Was that really what started you on the path to this memoir?
Wallace Kennedy: In 2009, I was invited to go to Selma and introduce Attorney General Eric Holder because I was a real big Obama supporter. I met Congressman John Lewis and we crossed the Edmond Pettus Bridge and he held my hand and he gave me the courage to find my voice. Growing up in a political family, I really didn’t have an opinion and I didn’t have a voice. But John gave me the courage. And I knew there was something I wanted to speak up and speak out about, and that was peace and reconciliation and forgiveness. So I decided I wanted a legacy that was different for my two sons than the one that was left for me.
AJC: Can you talk about the difficulty in confronting the legacy left to you by your father?
Wallace Kennedy: It was hard at first. I did a lot of research on my father and it was difficult coming to terms with my past. A lot of things that happened were hard to relive. Leaving a painful past behind is not always easy, but it’s the right thing to do.
AJC: What were most difficult passages to write and come to terms with?
Wallace Kennedy: My father’s politics, early on, were hard to relive. My mother’s illness and death. My own struggle with depression.
AJC: This memoir is as much, or more, about the inner workings of your family as it is about your father and his politics. Some of the most bracing passages described in detail the dismissive and often cruel way your father spoke to your mom.
Wallace Kennedy: I just remember the words he said to her. It was a difficult relationship at times and my father always had to be right. They loved one another, but it was a very complicated and painful relationship at times. But the words I put down, I remember those.
AJC: What did you learn about yourself in this process of writing the book?
Wallace Kennedy: That I could accept my past. Not to forget it, but to accept it because you have to move forward.
AJC: But that’s easy to say, but very hard to do.
Wallace Kennedy: It was difficult. There were times during the writing that I had to stop and maybe take a week off and give myself some time.
AJC: You portray your father more as an opportunist and careerist driven by ambition first, rather than being motivated by racist beliefs.
Wallace Kennedy: He had a difficult childhood. He had a mother who was very stoic and an alcoholic father. And so he just really became sort of driven. And he dreamed of becoming governor. That was his boyhood dream and it grew. That was the most important thing to him. In the 1958 race (for Alabama governor) he ran as a moderate on race and ran for better roads and schools, but he ran against John Patterson who was a staunch racist and was supported by the Klan. John Patterson won and my father was devastated. He started campaigning again the day after he lost. And he knew what he had to do for that next governor’s race, so he chose power over principle. He adopted segregation and ran on that because he knew that he could win. He became a segregationist for power.
AJC: What was the family’s relationship to African Americans prior to that?
Wallace Kennedy: My father was a circuit judge and in his courtroom, the African American lawyers in his courtroom, he made all of the white lawyers address the African American lawyers as Mr. and their last name. He wanted the African American lawyers to have lunch with him in his courtroom because the little cafe across the street from the courthouse was segregated. He was also on the board of trustees at Tuskegee Institute in the 1950s. He was respected by the African American community.
AJC: So, what happened to him?
Wallace Kennedy: When you’re driven and politics is first and the only thing you want is power, you’ll do anything.
AJC: How did that affect you?
Wallace Kennedy: Everybody assumed that his politics were my politics. But when he stood in the schoolhouse door, I thought that was wrong. I disagreed with him and I had a couple of friends who knew that I disagreed, but, ah, it was hard being George Wallace’s daughter.
AJC: How do you think your parents would react to your book?
Wallace Kennedy: I think they would be proud of me.
AJC: How have these lessons influenced how you reared your own children?
Wallace Kennedy: One of the first things we taught them was you never judge a man by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.
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