Peggy Wallace Kennedy — daughter of reviled and revered civil rights antagonist George Wallace — recently told a packed audience at Central Connecticut State University that she didn't view the former Alabama governor as a racist.
Instead, Kennedy said the man who vilified blacks, and fulfilled a political pledge to personally block two black students enrolling at the University of Alabama in 1963, was someone who "promoted segregation for political reasons."
It sounded like Kennedy had traveled from the State of Denial — not Alabama — to talk about her father's despicable past and how it eventually inspired her to leave a personal legacy that countered her dad's.
As a kid growing up in the 1970s, I hated George Wallace. He was the embodiment of evil and wickedness. He relished being the face of white supremacy in Old South. He sicced dogs and water hoses on blacks and blocked them from integrating public schools. As governor, he abused his power in exercising bigotry.
I attended the Oct. 24 forum because I was curious about Peggy Wallace Kennedy. Was she ever able to reconcile her infamous father being on the wrong side of a defining moment in American history?
Wallace's venom was on full display at his 1963 inauguration, where he spouted the iconic comment "Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever."
Peggy Wallace, now 63, was 13 when her dad made his proclamation and blocked those university doors.
"Those six words, uttered on that winter day, would become a personal commentary on the character of Gov. George Wallace,'' Kennedy said. "And no matter what he would later become that moment in history will always be part and parcel of his trademark."
The governor actually underwent a remarkable transformation. Unfortunately, it took an attempted assassination in 1972 and a bullet in the spine for him to see the wrongs of his past. Wallace spent the last quarter-century of his life in a wheelchair, before dying in 1998 at 79.
In 1982, he was elected for a fourth term, running on a platform of racial conciliation and better public education for all. He was elected with a large majority of African Americans voting for him.
"We thought (segregation) was in the best interest of all concerned. We were mistaken,'' Wallace told a black audience in 1982.
They are words that Wallace never told his daughter. As a young girl playing on a swing with her mother at a lakeside cabin, she was oblivious to the "segregation" comments — and the repercussions.
As she grew older, Kennedy said she understood her father's philosophy was horribly wrong, even illegal. She longed for an explanation that never came.
"When the subject was broached it was brushed aside,'' she said. "Even at the time it all seemed so illogical. My father was a lawyer and a respected former judge. He understood the Constitution and I assumed was familiar with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education (separate but unequal schools were unconstitutional).''
Married and the mother of two children, Kennedy recalled taking her then 8-year-old son to Atlanta in 1996 to view the Martin Luther King exhibit. There they viewed the chronicling of the civil rights movement, including Wallace's obstructionist tactics in Alabama.
"My son asked, 'Why did Poppa do those things to other people?''' Kennedy said. "I realized at that moment that I was at a crossroad in my life and in the life of my son. The mantle had passed. And it was now time for me to do for (my son) what my father never did for me. It was the first step into my journey of building a legacy of my own."
For years, she has worked with Martin Luther King allies, such as John Lewis, to advocate for equal rights. In 1996, the Wallace Family Foundation awarded its profile in courage award to Vivian Malone, one of the two Alabama students Wallace tried to prevent from entering college.
As for her son, Kennedy told him: "Poppa never told me why he did those things. But I know that he was wrong. So, maybe it will just have to be up to me and you to make things right."
Looks like George Wallace's tyranny won't be in vain.
Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show'' (www.foxct.com/stan and Saturdays, 5:30 a.m., on FOX CT).Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun