A segregationist’s daughter recalls growing up on the wrong side of history in her debut memoir.
Kennedy, who lives in Montgomery, Alabama, makes it clear that she has no plans to whitewash the legacy of her father, four-term Alabama governor George Wallace (1919-1998), who proclaimed: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” The author writes that when Wallace denied any role in the brutal assaults on civil rights marchers in Selma, on the day known as Bloody Sunday, he resembled “Pontius Pilate washing his hands” of guilt. However, she tries gently to correct a few misperceptions of her father. When Wallace renounced his views on segregation after an assassination attempt left him a paraplegic, many observers saw it as another crass political move, but the author notes that in private conversations late in life, he was sincerely “ashamed and regretful.” She also shows poignantly the toll his actions took on his family and draws parallels between his tactics and those of Donald Trump. Before Wallace persuaded the Alabama legislature to change the law to allow him to serve more than one term as governor, he had his wife, Lurleen, run as his stand-in despite a recent diagnosis of uterine cancer; she died after 15 months in office. The author has suffered from chronic depression and received electroconvulsive therapy for “reactive psychosis caused by stress” even as she’s tried to ease others’ pain through civil rights activism. She doesn’t say whether the ECT helped or how she evolved from loyal daughter to social justice advocate—did she have a Damascene moment?—two of many subjects on which she seems to repress as much as express. Kennedy tells her story well, but she leaves the impression that—whether because of her Southern good manners or because some subjects are still too painful to talk about—her history involves more than she can yet say.
A fair-minded memoir and portrayal of an exceptionally divisive civil rights–era politician.