The daughters of two historical figures from America’s civil rights movement spoke at UCF last Thursday at the 8th annual “Women and Leadership: A Global Perspective” forum. Cheryl Brown Henderson and Peggy Wallace Kennedy, both civil rights activists, shared their family stories and personal paths to becoming leaders for the same cause.
Henderson, who founded the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research, is the daughter of the late Rev. Oliver Brown of the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. She discussed her family’s involvement in the case and underscored how ordinary their lives were. What was extraordinary was her father’s choice to join other families in the case against the school board, she said. Her message to the students in the audience was about the importance of involvement. “Being a U.S. citizen is not a spectator sport,” she stated, “Be engaged.”
Kennedy’s family legacy contrasted sharply with Henderson’s. She was 13 years old when her father, Alabama governor George C. Wallace, stood in a school doorway protesting integration and cementing his status as one of America’s most ardent segregationists. She spoke of her late father with thoughtful reflection, but lamented that he never told her why he chose to take the stance he did. She described a moment with her son, trying to explain why “Papa” chose the path he did, and could only answer, “I don’t know, but I know he was wrong, and you and I have to make it right.” Kennedy mapped her transition from a life of quiet indifference to her inspiration to step outside the shadow of that schoolhouse door and stand for change.
Both activists emphasized that understanding the past is crucial to address and confront social inequality. Kennedy advocated for the courage, perseverance and compassion that can build positive changes and leave a powerful legacy. “All of us here must be better, not bitter,” she urged, and noted that “tolerance is more than what we believe, but what we live.”
When asked about women’s role in the future of social justice, both called for more women in politics and public leadership. Henderson advised the current generation to recognize the power and critical role that young people have had in the history of civil rights. She praised their idealism and tenacity, and suggested that social change does not come from older generations, but from the youth.
The presentation, which was moderated by Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas, was the inaugural event of UCF’s Civil Rights Series, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. The event was also a feature of the 20th anniversary celebration week of the Women’s Studies Program.
For more information about the next event in UCF’s Civil Rights Series, please visit ucfglobalperspectives.org.