Reading Birmingham

Reading Birmingham: Peggy Kennedy Struggles With the Legacy of Her Father, George Wallace, in “The Broken Road”

Bloomsbury Publishing

“The Broken Road: George Wallace and a Daughter’s Journey to Reconciliation,” by Peggy Wallace Kennedy and H. Mark Kennedy (Bloomsbury Publishing)

George Wallace is one of the great enigmas of American history, an enigma that keeps pulling us back and begging us to render judgment. Wallace was the most successful racist demagogue of his time, but because of his late life mea culpa on all the terrible things he had done, we each get to decide whether Wallace deserves redemption. That is both maddening and satisfying. And it is a large part of what makes him so compelling.

This is not a biography of George Wallace. Those have been done and done well. “The Broken Road” is the story of a family struggling with an impossible legacy. Peggy Kennedy explores the impact of her father’s life and career on our nation and on the children and grandchildren he largely ignored. (On the day of Peggy’s birth, her father showed up late, kissed his new daughter on the forehead and left to go out politicking.)

White southerners who reject the racist teachings of their elders often feel a life-long need to understand and to explain. That need propels “The Broken Road.” For these white southerners, there is the tension between expressing our differences with our kin but not rejecting them as loved ones or holding them out for ridicule, not using them as props. How do we elevate ourselves without tearing them down? How do we recognize their humanity, their kindness, their ability to love without seeming to apologize or rationalize their racism? And there is the danger of becoming a little too self-congratulatory.

That’s the narrow path Peggy Kennedy must navigate. She is still wounded by her father’s indifference and her mother’s early death, but she has forged her own role as an advocate for civil rights and simple decency. A supporter of Barack Obama, she has walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge with civil rights icon John Lewis and has been recognized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other organizations for her work toward racial reconciliation. But no matter how much good she does, Kennedy will always be George Wallace’s daughter. And that’s a hell of a heavy burden.

Peggy Kennedy believes that her father, who came to know constant pain and suffering after being shot and paralyzed, was genuinely remorseful for his embrace of racist politics. He was, in her telling, a decent man who sacrificed his decency to blind ambition. Maybe she is right. But even if she is, we ultimately have to ask, so what? Whether George Wallace died a changed and chastened man or a cynical manipulator is interesting but probably not all that significant. Either way, the harm he did endures. Wallace helped perpetuate a system of racial oppression that was nothing short of evil. People died because politicians like Wallace gave those who wanted it the license to act on their mindless bigotry. And Wallace’s victims are not just people of color from the time of Jim Crow.

Wallace fashioned a style of resentment politics that is ripping our country apart today. “Daddy’s strategy of articulating and mobilizing the grievances of the disposed,” Kennedy writes, “would become one of the core strategies of the Trump campaign.” While Trump lacks Wallace’s intellect, Trump possess Wallace’s instinctive understanding of white bigotry and insecurity. “It was the politics of rage and fear,” Kennedy writes. “It was resentment for no particular reason.” So today, when some bigot murders people in a synagogue, takes away a woman’s reproductive rights or beats a trans person to death on the sidewalk, that bigot creates another Wallace victim.

That is George Wallace’s legacy.

Jim Baggett

About Reading Birmingham: James L. Baggett, a Birmingham archivist, has assisted with research on many of the 450 books about Birmingham and Alabama since 1970. He reviews new publications and older titles that address the city and state for Birmingham Watch.  He has authored or edited five books on Birmingham and Alabama history. Baggett received the Alabama Library Association’s 2019 Eminent Librarian Award.