A Day of Reckoning

"How can we inspire others about the benefit of positive social change if we see injustice and turn our backs?”
The Upper School welcomed Peggy Wallace Kennedy as this year’s speaker for the Community Time that followed Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Mrs. Kennedy, the daughter of two former Alabama Governors, George and Lurleen Wallace, spoke about growing up in a household of adamant segregationists where she said she “lived a life of quiet indifference behind the heavy gates of the Alabama Governor’s mansion,” and stepped away from opportunities to “do what my better self begged me to do.”

Her “day of reckoning” occurred years later. It was, she said, “a personal acknowledgement of who I had been and what we had done. It was just a simple question that changed my life.”

Mrs. Kennedy and her husband had taken their 8-year-old son to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. They came to a photograph of Gov. Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to block African-American students from entering. Her son stood silently for a long time and then asked, “’Why did Paw-Paw do those things to other people?’”

She said that from there she knew she had to use her voice “to raise the call for justice for all in my lifetime.”

“While very few of us will have monuments in our honor after we’re gone," Mrs. Kennedy said, "all of us can do monumental things each day to make America better.”

Dr. King’s life teaches us to aspire “to make the choices that lead us to higher ground.” His courage, she said, should inspire you to see, feel, and celebrate others, and respect their humanity. “Your voice counts,” Mrs. Kennedy told the students. “Use it for something.”

Mrs. Kennedy described standing arm in arm with Bernice King, Martin Luther king Jr.’s daughter, on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, on the day 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March. “For that moment in time [we] became the embodiment of the little black girl and the little white girl holding hands as sisters down in Alabama.”

“Could he,” she wondered, “ever have imagined us standing together as testaments to the power of reconciliation and change through understanding and holding out hope for America. There is no better time than now for us to hold hands rather than holding down the inherent rights of others. One can never measure the true worth of a mended heart that beats because someone cared. How can we inspire others about the benefit of positive social change if we see injustice and turn our backs?”

“This was a powerful invitation to our students to help Dr. King’s dream come true right here in Alabama,” said Michael Treadwell, 9th and 10th Grade Dean. “I find her story a very powerful call to overcome legacies of the past right here, right now.”

“Mrs. Kennedy’s moving remarks provoked an interesting conversation in my advisory, during which we discussed the importance of speaking up when we see or hear injustice,” said Upper School History teacher David Hillinck. “Her story reminds us that even small acts of courage and kindness make more of a difference than we sometimes realize.”

The conversation about speaking up continued at the following week’s Community Time when Erin Beacham, Education Director at the Anti-Defamation League-Southeast Region, addressed students.

You can read and hear more about Peggy Wallace Kennedy here.