One spring day almost a quarter of a century ago, Peggy and Mark Kennedy and their young son made a pilgrimage to Atlanta to visit Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave. From there they walked down the street where the Civil Rights icon had grown up. to the house where he had lived.
Next they went to the newly-opened museum, where they came upon an exhibit of large photographs of dark days in Alabama, the state where the Kennedys lived. There were photos of firehoses aimed at children in a Birmingham park, and dogs with bared teeth lunging at them.
There were pictures of the bombed 16th Street Baptist Church where four little girls were killed one Sunday morning, and of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where state troopers beat and tear gassed demonstrators peacefully marching for the right to vote.
And there was a large picture of Alabama governor George Wallace, who approved much of this carnage, standing in the schoolhouse door, angrily proclaiming segregation forever.
The Kennedy family looked in silence at the sobering display.
Then the young boy looked at his mother and asked a question that she says changed her life. “Why did Paw Paw do those things to people?”
Peggy Kennedy, who grew up as Peggy Wallace, the daughter of one of this country’s most powerful and notorious racists, hugged her son and said, “Paw Paw never told me why he did those things. Maybe we will have to make it right.”
Peggy Wallace Kennedy has spent her life trying to atone for the sins of her father.
“As I grew older I realized that my father had created a climate with his words and actions that made other people go out and do horrible things,” she said in a recent article in The Bitter Southerner. “That was very hard to take.”
But families are complicated things. As horrified, repulsed, and saddened as she was by her father’s actions, she also still loved him. And so as much as she wants to atone for her father’s deeds, she also wants people to know that he, too, repented; that he died a very different man from the one who was the architect of so much violence, abuse, and degradation.
She traces that change in her father to the assassination attempt against him in May 1972, when he was running for president. The shooting left him partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Wallace had an unlikely visitor to his Maryland hospital room after the shooting – Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, and a presidential candidate herself.
“Don’t you go visit that racist,” her advisors told her. But she went anyway.
George Wallace stood for things that Shirley Chisholm found repugnant, but he was a human being, a fellow child of God.
“She and daddy talked real low,” Peggy remembers. “They prayed together. Daddy asked her, ‘What are your people going to say about you being here?’ She told him it didn’t matter: ‘I would not want this to happen to anyone,’ she told him.
“Daddy’s face changed. There was just something that came over him. I think a seed was planted that day.”
Peggy’s husband, Mark, recalls that Wallace had never been a man of empathy. But now he had received it from the unlikeliest source. It gave him something to think about in those long days in the hospital.
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“I say to you that listen: Love your enemies,” Jesus says. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?
“But love your enemies… Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
That is the biblical text that Martin Luther King was preaching on in the excerpt we heard today.
The kind of love that Jesus is talking about does not erase the past, does not whitewash evil.
“It’s significant that Jesus does not say, ‘Like your enemy.’” King said. “There are a lot of people I find difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like them.
“But Jesus says love them. You love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed the person does. That’s what Jesus means.
“Love has within it a redemptive power,” King says, “a power that eventually transforms individuals. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. There is something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive.
“Love your enemies.
“I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed.”
It’s one thing to say this; it’s another to truly believe it. Can someone with a history of persecuting others, of condoning and carrying out violence truly repent and turn their lives around? Can a leopard change its spots? It’s hard to believe.
But the Bible shows us that it can happen. Later this week on the church calendar is the day we remember the conversion of St. Paul. Most people know Paul as one of Christianity’s first great theologians and evangelists, who traveled far and wide spreading the teachings and love of Jesus. The letters he wrote to Christian communities he founded comprise much of the New Testament.
What we sometimes forget is that Paul started out as a persecutor of the followers of Jesus. He watched with approval as Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death.
Shortly after that, scripture says Paul, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus,” was on his way to Damascus to round up those who followed Christ.
That is when he was literally knocked to the ground by a blinding light, and heard the voice of the resurrected Jesus say, “Why do you persecute me?”
That event changed Paul’s life, transforming him from a persecutor of Jesus’ followers to one of his most ardent apostles.
Those around Paul were understandably skeptical at first, but his transformed life proved that the change was real.
Similarly, I’m sure many were skeptical in 1979 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where King was once a pastor, when Wallace made an unannounced visit one Sunday morning.
The former governor was pushed up the aisle in his wheelchair to speak to those who had suffered so much at his hands.
“I have learned what suffering means,” he said. “I think I can understand something of the pain black people have had to endure. I know I contributed to that pain, and I can only ask your forgiveness.”
Seeking forgiveness at Dexter was not the end of Wallace’s attempts to atone. He appeared before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a leading African American Civil Rights organization, and apologized. He did so again on a nationally televised interview.
He sought out the Rev. Jesse Jackson to pray with him and ask forgiveness.
On the 30th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, the man who had authorized troopers to violently stop the march, went to those who gathered to remember it.
He was too ill to speak, but his statement was read to the crowd.
“Much has transpired since those days (30 years ago),” he said. “A great deal has been lost, and a great deal has been gained, and here we are. May your message be heard. May your lessons never be forgotten.”
Joseph Lowery, a leader of the original march, responded to Wallace.
“You are a different George Wallace today,” he said. “We both serve a God who can make the desert bloom. We ask God’s blessing on you.”
Wallace’s change was not just in words. In his last term as governor in the late 1980s, he hired a black press secretary, appointed more than 160 blacks to state governing boards, and worked to double the number of blacks registered to vote in Alabama.
Martin Luther King did not live long enough to see the change in George Wallace. But I think it’s safe to assume that the man who preached on forgiveness so often would have reconciled with his enemy.
“Forgiveness,” King said, “does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to relationship…While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.”
Was George Wallace’s repentance real?
Ultimately only he and God can say for sure.
But as Christians we have to believe that repentance and redemption do occur, that transformation can happen, that the beloved community, the kingdom of God, is real.
Love your enemies.
For more about Peggy Wallace Kennedy read this article in The Bitter Southerner: