Dramatic black-and-white photographs projected on big screens and voices echoing the nation’s troubled civil rights past caused many people to weep openly.
But the audience of 2,000 also embraced the directive of the Daughters of the Civil Rights Movement. The work that their fathers did to force America to live up to its constitutional guarantees for all is far from over.
“All of us have a role to play,” said Kerry Kennedy, daughter of former presidential candidate and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. “There is something for all of us to do. There is so much need out there. Find something, and do it.”
The unusual gathering featured Kennedy; Donzaleigh Abernathy, daughter of the Rev. Ralph Abernathy Sr. who helped lead the civil rights movement; Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of President Lyndon Johnson who campaigned for and signed civil rights bills into law; and Peggy Wallace Kennedy, the daughter of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace. He is infamously known for standing in a doorway at the University of Alabama in an attempt to block two black students from enrolling. Wallace also said “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”
The event took place at the 23rd annual international convention of the National Association for Multicultural Education. The Barbara Lee & Elihu Harris Lecture this month commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Rep. Barbara Lee told the audience she recalled being upset in 1972 while working for Rep. Shirley Chisholm’s history-making campaign as the first African-American woman to run for president.
Chisholm insisted on visiting Wallace in the hospital after he was shot during his presidential run. The assassination attempt left him paralyzed.
But Wallace Kennedy said Chisholm’s visit was transformative. “That day my father’s heart began to heal,” said Wallace Kennedy, who witnessed it. “It was a beautiful thing to see.”
The healing that boiled from those turbulent times also changed Wallace Kennedy. She said she stepped from “the shadows of self-doubt” into the light of activism. Wallace Kennedy asked people “to believe you have the power to change your world.”
“Too many American schoolhouse doors remain closed,” she said. “America is at her best when she embraces all of us.”
The purpose of the Daughters of the Civil Rights Movement, unlike the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the Confederacy, is not centered on the past.
By sharing personal stories as eyewitnesses to history, they motivate people to keep pushing America toward a more inclusive future. Abernathy showed dozens of photos from the 1950s and 1960s of her dad, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others.
Several pictures featured young civil rights marchers arrested, bitten by dogs, beaten by whites, sprayed by fire hoses and buildings bombed, including Abernathy’s home. But nonviolence and prayer prevailed, changing laws and people in the U.S.
“This is a personal story that turned into a public story,” Abernathy said. Crosses as symbols of Christian love burned in her pictures as the terrible time’s hate. “They got it wrong.”
Johnson explained that her father saw that the time was right for America’s laws to change so the country could start to shed its racist past. Congress courageously cooperated, passing the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and other laws that brought down the walls of legal segregation.
“That spirit is needed now more than ever,” said Johnson, pointing to the fix Congress needs to make in the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court gutted it this year. “Emancipation is only a proclamation, not a fact. With a continued commitment to social justice, we shall overcome.”
Overcoming remains the goal.
Lewis W. Diuguid is a member of The Kansas City Star’s editorial board. Readers may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.