I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!
Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington D.C., August 28, 1963
We humans can be a mean-spirited, condemning, arrogant species. And fear of “the other” has led to horrible actions by so many, in every corner of the globe, in all the decades of our existence.
I recently read, and presented my synopsis of, The Broken Road: George Wallace and a Daughter’s Journey to Reconciliation by Peggy Wallace Kennedy. (I presented toy synopsis of this book at the February Urban Engagement Book Club, sponsored by CitySquare).. She saw such mean-spirited actions up close. Her father was George Wallace. Yes, that George Wallace. The one that Martin Luther King, Jr. was referring to in his speech, in the quote above. The “vicious racist, with his lips dripping” with his ugly racism – that was her father.
I have stood on the portico of the Alabama State Capitol, in Montgomery, where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as President of the Confederate States of America, and where George Wallace, at his inauguration as Governor, delivered his infamous line, on January 14, 1963 (just months before Dr. King’s famous speech). George Wallace said:
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.
In the book, there is one particularly jarring and offensive paragraph. I hesitate to put it in this post because of the words used. But, it is important to the story. In 1958, George Wallace lost the Democratic primary race for Governor to John Patterson, a man who was – yes, this is possible – even more racist than George Wallace. So, after losing to Mr. Patterson, well…read this, from the book:
Daddy had yet to come to terms with the notion that Patterson’s real appeal was his blatant racism. Daddy scoffed at the notion and shrugged off suggestions that he needed to solidify his support with the Klan— Patterson campaigned fiercely throughout the southern part of the state and continued to rely on racial rhetoric and his promises to keep Alabama white. He “was honored,” he said, to be running with KKK support. He did everything he could to remind the KKK and white voters that he was on their side. …His hard-line racism had given him the edge. My father had lost. …Although there is disagreement about the events that immediately followed, depending on who tells the story, and overlooking Daddy’s vague memory on the subject, it is generally agreed that Daddy said at some point that night, “I was out-niggered. I’ll never be out-niggered again.”
Later in his life, George Wallace apologized to, and reconciled with some of those he had wronged so grievously. And Peggy, his daughter, embraced, and was embraced by, John Lewis and the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. So, yes, reconciliation is possible.
In my synopses, I always include a number of elements. Here are some for this book:
What is the point: Even when raised at the very center of racism, reconciliation is possible, and redemption can be very real.
• Why is this book worth our time?
#1 – This book provides an inside view into the life and thinking of George Wallace, the racist Governor of Alabama.
#2 – This book is a superb memoir, proving slice of life insights into poverty, racism, and power politics.
#3 – This book shows that, even when raised at the very center of racism, one can grow, and grow up into a champion of equality and justice.
Here are some of the “best of” my highlighted Passages:
• Eric Holder’s wife, Sharon, was the sister of Vivian Malone, who had met my father for the first time during another key event in the struggle for civil rights. Daddy had made his “stand in the schoolhouse door,” as it came to be known, in June 1963, blocking Vivian’s admission to the University of Alabama, which he had refused to desegregate.
• We must live our lives with inspiration, always aspiring to make the choices that lead us to higher ground, that guide us to understanding, of not just who we are but who we can become.
• Daddy could justify anything. He was always blameless should things go wrong. He led a don’t-blame-me kind of life.
• For Daddy was willing to bend his moral universe toward power. As I would learn again and again in sometimes painful ways, he was ready to compromise not only himself but his family for the dream he had since he was a child—to be the governor of Alabama.
• Make America Great Again is not a plan. It is an insinuation that America is not good enough to be proud of. It is a pledge of allegiance to discrimination. It makes people feel that their way of life is under assault, and their deepest values are being trampled, no matter how misguided, hurtful, or destructive those notions are. It makes hating right.
• If I had asked Daddy in the summer of 1958 if he was a racist, I’m not sure what he would have said. 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.
• Now I see that Daddy represented the reflexive racism of Southern men and women of his generation.
• He would have done whatever it took to be elected.
• I wore cardboard inside my shoes to cover the holes in the worn-out soles that winter.
• During the first six months of 1962, we barely had enough to eat.
• “I will continue to fight for segregation in Alabama because it is based on our firm conviction of right, and because it serves the best interests of all our people … We shall fight the federals in the arena of an increasingly sympathetic national public opinion … I pledge to stand between you and those who would impose on you doctrines foreign to our way of life and disruptive of the peace and tranquility of our citizens. I will face our enemies face to face, hip to hip and toe to toe and never surrender the governor’s office to these modern-day carpetbaggers, scalawags, and polliwogs. Right will prevail if we fight.”
• Having a father who is adulated by boisterous crowds and lusted after by women sitting beneath oversized hair dryers in small-town beauty parlors because he stomped on the inherent rights of people he was supposed to be serving makes for a rather clouded conscience for a questioning daughter who sees the truth going a-kilter.
• Seymore Trammell had said to others that he was going to make sure that Daddy was not out-niggered again. Toward that end, he convinced Daddy that Asa Carter, from the northwest Alabama city of Oxford, was the perfect person to help him with his inaugural speech. Carter was involved with the KKK.
• “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, and segregation forever.”
• Wallace loyalists noted that Daddy’s speeches during his 1962 campaign had taken on a malevolent tone, more about segregation and less about progress. Only a few were aware that the new and revised language of George Wallace was from the pen of Asa Carter, one of the most virulent racists in Alabama, a thug and a criminal with a reputation for murderous violence.
• Daddy never trusted more than a handful of people, and at times he was willing to look the other way when close friends or allies did mischief in his name.
• The mere thought of the progeny of the slaves they once owned wanting to go to white schools and to sit down to eat with white people and, most appallingly, to vote was just more than most white folks could stand.
• Southern pride dictated that even though he lost the battle, it didn’t matter: it was the fact that he was willing to fight.
• Although by this point I knew that his politics would never be my politics and that they ran counter to what I knew in every fiber of my being was just and kind. I know that I was only fourteen, but now, looking back, I sometimes wonder if I should have stood against my father.
• Daddy understood the power of hate and fear and exploited these feelings to gather support.
• And I wanted to be remembered for who I was rather than who I belonged to.
Here are a few of my lessons and points I highlighted from the book:
- George Wallace; a quick history:
- twice, Governor of Alabama
- his first wife also served as Governor (died in office)
- three marriages…
- ran for President
- paralyzed in an assassination attempt
- racist; then, penitent, apologetic ex-racist
- It was during this period that Daddy repented for his past actions with both words and deeds. He made outspoken declarations of his changed heart. His own suffering had contributed to the evolution of his thinking. — In 1979, at the Dexter Avenue Church where Dr. Martin Luther King had been the pastor and led the Montgomery bus boycott, Daddy made an unannounced Sunday visit. — “I have learned what suffering means. I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain and I can only ask for forgiveness.” And by and large, the African Americans in that church believed that he was sincere. They deeply believed in the power of forgiveness. It was one of the prime tenets of their faith.
- Was George Wallace a racist?
- of course
- it’s complicated…
- He often invited them to eat with him in his office rather than suffer the indignity of eating in the segregated restaurant on the courthouse square.
- He never missed a Board of Trustees meeting during his term. His dedication to Tuskegee belied his coming to the politics of segregation in the decade to follow.
- Class warfare and, years later, race warfare were Daddy’s aces in the hole—the source of his power.
- George Wallace knew how to put on a show…
- He was cocky, snapping and strutting, a small, slight man with dynamic energy and tremendous charisma, the Confederacy’s very own Napoleon.
- bands; singers – Wallace rallies were boisterous: gales of laughter from the antics of Minnie Pearl,
- Daddy knew how to roust people up, make them shout and raise fists.
- George Wallace, precursor to Donald Trump?
- Take him out of those Alabama backwoods and he’ll be finished. That was a mistake. And forty-eight years later, disaffected voters responded similarly to Trump. They rebelled against the same intellectualism and paternalism, He understood that when middle-class whites perceived that the American Dream was no longer within reach, they would become blindly loyal to the person they believed could reclaim it for them. – In 1972 and again in 2016, white working-class Americans needed to feel vindicated. No more handouts or political favors to the elites, no illegal immigrants stealing our jobs, stand up when the flag goes by, anger and fear are justified—get real! Stand Up for America. Make America Great Again. — While powerless people may sometimes be skeptical of those who have the power, powerful people are the ones they most often worship, accepting their authority without question and teaching their children that respect for authority is a moral absolute. And that is at the heart of the appeal of both “Stand Up for America” and “Make America Great Again.” — Daddy’s strategy of articulating and mobilizing the grievances of the dispossessed would become one of the core strategies of the Trump campaign forty-four years later. It was the politics of rage and fear. It was resentment for no particular reason.
- Dr. King’s daughter Bernice and I held hands as we stood on the steps of the Alabama capitol as the marchers approached. …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.
- Some lessons and takeaways:
#1 – First, this memoir is so revealing about life in general – poverty; racism; insecurity; depression…
#2 – The quest for power can lead to ghastly behaviors.
#3 – The south really was deeply racist. (Maybe still is deeply racist).
#4 – George Wallace learned how to use fear to get the votes. This may have lessons beyond his own use of fear.
#5 – Forgiveness is possible. But, a sincere apology, and actions demonstrating remorse, are essential elements in bringing about, and receiving, such forgiveness.
This book is about more than just the racism of George Wallace. There is a moving chapter on depression. There is great insight about poverty. It is a well-written memoir!
But, most of all, it is a look at American racism at ground zero – Alabama, 1950s and 1960s. I have presented a number of books on American racism. This one was an especially emotional one to read.
But, the very good news is…If the daughter of George Wallace can become inclusive and welcoming to all people, then maybe the rest of us can.
I recommend that you move this book up on your reading list. You will be glad that you did. Or, if not glad, at least enlightened.