Civil Rights' Daughters preach continuing struggle for justice
By Lou Fancher Oakland Tribune Contra Costa Times
Four daughters of the 1960s civil rights movement delved 50 years into the past and preached a continuation of the fight for equality to more than 1,000 people in a Marriott Hotel ballroom Saturday night.
The Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture Series event commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, presenting Donzaleigh Abernathy, daughter of civil rights leaders Ralph and Juanita Abernathy; Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of President Lyndon B. and Lady Bird Johnson; Kerry Kennedy, the seventh child of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy's 11 children; and Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Lurleen Wallace.
Three of the speakers celebrated their fathers' legacies: one, Wallace Kennedy, came to step out from under her father's dark shadow.
"Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," the Alabama governor's daughter quoted, from her father's 1963 inaugural address. "Those six words became an inescapable burden. For most of my life, I lived in the shadow of history."
The history included the day her father stood in a schoolhouse doorway and tried to stop two black students, Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood, from entering the University of Alabama.
"When daughters can see themselves as separate and apart, their voices can count for justice and mercy," Wallace Kennedy said. "Today, I stand before you as myself."
Abernathy's testimony rose from a different but equally painful origin. In 1957, her Montgomery, Ala., home was blown up by civil rights opponents.
Two years before, her father, the preacher at a small Southern church, was moved by the arrest of Rosa Parks to organize a nonviolent protest. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, planned as a one-day boycott, lasted 381 days.
Abernathy's pictorial slide show illustrated her story: "colored seating from rear," read a sign on a bus; arrest mug shots of her father and her "uncle," Martin Luther King Jr. followed. Burning crosses, police dogs ripping into peaceful protesters' clothing, fire hoses scattering men, women and children told a story Abernathy said she never wanted anyone to sugarcoat.
"You young people don't know this, but this is the world I grew up in," she said. "My daddy went to jail 44 times. Not only black people suffered, but white people were killed to make sure we got the rights we deserved."
Johnson spoke of her parents' earliest, private steps to establish equality in America -- the bats and balls her schoolteacher father purchased for his impoverished students; the time their accompanying housekeeper was refused entry into a hotel and her mother drove on, unwilling to support a racist establishment.
Johnson was sometimes perplexed -- even angered -- by her father's actions, like the time he handed the first pen he used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to a Republican.
"He told me the laws would never have passed without bipartisanship. That spirit could be used now," Johnson said, receiving applause. "Until there is equality in our schools, our justice system, in health care and purchasing power, equality will be a proclamation, not a fact."
Kennedy said she's often asked how she became involved in civil rights activism, prompting her to lead more than 40 human rights delegations to over 30 countries and establish the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights.
"If you have seven brothers, you appreciate civil rights at a very young age," she said.
Documenting abuses as a 21-year-old Amnesty International intern, Kennedy was shocked at the "families destroyed, futures eclipsed" at the hands of American officials.
Today, she said, "We've replaced outright discrimination with unspoken structural discrimination."
She urged the audience to "harness the band of freedom" and refuse to succumb to governments, armies or "huge, multinational corporations" resistant to change.
Moderator, author and television journalist Belva Davis asked the daughters for insights from their lives. From their individual experiences, their voices united in a collective message most eloquently expressed by Wallace Kennedy.
"I was in the room," she said, recalling the day when Shirley Chisholm, the nation's first black woman to serve in Congress, came to the hospital to visit Wallace after he was shot.
"That is the day when my father's heart began to heal. It was two people who came together and put their differences aside. I invite you to rise and proclaim that for too many Americans, the schoolhouse doors remain closed. America is at its best when it protects not just some of us but all of us."