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Of Racism, Redemption And Forgiveness

The movie Selma was screened Monday night at the Carver Cultural Center.  About a hundred people showed up on a cool evening and Councilman Alan Warrick was there--the anticipation was palpable.

"This is going to be a very interesting occasion. I've heard so much about George Wallace. He's kindof the antagonist for every civil rights story that happened in Alabama in the period," Warrick said.

You may well remember the phrase that George Wallace has long been remembered for, his exhortation "Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever!"

As the movie detailed, George Wallace resisted change in Alabama just as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made the state his focus. County registrars were keeping African Americans there from voting, so King, Jr., asked President Lyndon Johnson to create a law to ensure black peoples' voting rights. 

When Johnson balks, King schedules a march from Selma to Montgomery.  A march he knew would result in violence--violence that would also humiliate Johnson into action.

The apex of the movie Selma was when marchers were beaten and tear-gassed at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Now Congressman John Lewis was nearly beaten to death by police. The footage and news coverage shocked the country and the world. Emeka Nwaze originally watched the events play out as a young boy in Nigeria. 

"If the movie is anything close to what really happened, that must have been one of the darkest moments, you know," he said. 

Monday at the Carver Center was pretty intense.

"I was close to tears at one point," he said. "I loved the movie, I loved the production. And to me, it brought a lot of things close to me, close to home. So I was impressed by it."

But the Selma screening was only half of what went on. Alabama Governor George Wallace had a daughter, and Monday night she spoke to a majority black audience.

(speech excerpt) "The lines that we must stand in to build a new America are those that lead to the ballot box."  

Peggy Wallace Kennedy's message is a decidedly different one than her father's, as she made clear when we spoke afterwards. 

"I speak on racial healing and racial harmony," she said.

And she has a curious companion in that ongoing struggle: Congressman John Lewis.

"We have become fast friends and have been friends since 2009, a wonderful experience," she said.

The experience she's talking about is that of walking the Edmund Pettus Bridge at his side during a peaceful re-creation of the original event. I asked her if anything stood out in her memory about the event. She smiled.

"Yes, he asked me if they were going too fast for me. And if they needed to slow down for me, which I thought was very ironic. That he wanted to know all about my comfort, when he was the one who had been viciously beaten at the foot of the bridge. And I kept saying, 'No sir, everything's fine for me.'"

Walking that notorious bridge wasn't the end of her time with Lewis. They've since become good friends.

"He has taught me a great deal about reconciliation and love and how that can heal the human heart," she said. 

The daughter of the man ultimately responsible for the beating of John Lewis has learned much about peace and redemption from the man who actually took the beating. Their mutual admiration has transcended all that they went through in the now-distant past.  

"He is always in my heart when I go and speak."

Redemption found its way to the Alabama Governor too, late in life, when he renounced segregation and asked for forgiveness.

For more on Peggy Wallace Kennedy go here

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii