Helpful links about what's going on:
An abridged version of this letter is now up on the Arkansas Times website at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/beebes-place-in-history/Content?oid=1852081 , and can apparently be found in the Times's newsstands this week.
I need to tell you a story about my grandmother. Do you actually read these, or is there (more likely) a crew of employees who screen them for you? Either way, it is a cautionary tale, and a tale that you desperately need to hear, I'm afraid.
My grandmother was born Virginia Dare Swepston in something like 1911 or so. She married Beauford Jennings Wallace, with whom she'd been in love literally since the second grade, and gave birth to three baby boys, one of which was my father. My father grew up on a farm with a grain company owned by my grandfather. By all accounts, they were the typical Arkansan family, real "salt of the earth" type people.
The story that you need to hear, and you do honestly need to hear it, is a story my father tells me about my grandmother, for whom I am named. He tells me it was a day in late September, 1957, and he was in the kitchen, watching my grandmother do the dishes. She was very dedicated to her husband, their family, and their home, and caring for all three was her full-time job. My father was watching her wash the dishes until she looked out the window... and what happened next is what you most desperately need to hear.
She glanced up and saw a line of military vehicles passing in front of the house. At that time, there was an old Arkansas highway that ran past my father's childhood home going from Memphis into Little Rock. When my grandmother saw these vehicles, she became enraged. She threw down her dishtowel and ran outside to stand in the front yard with her apron on, shake her fist angrily at the vehicles, and yell at them.
It just so happens that these vehicles were, in fact, the 101st Airborne on their way to help the Little Rock Nine attend school at Central High, where their very lives were in danger from people like my grandmother for simply wanting equality.
I wonder how this story makes you feel. I wonder if you think that what my grandmother did was wrong or whether she was right. I wonder if you can imagine the shame I feel when I tell this story. My memories of my grandmother are good ones. She was always so kind, so extremely classy. She was the perfect example of a Southern belle to me. This one story, however, this brief moment discolors my memory of her. It makes me remember that at her core, my grandmother was a racist woman who went to her grave holding on to her beliefs.
It's easy to say, "But that's just how things/people were back then." But saying that is the wrong answer, Mr. Governor. Saying that excuses behavior that was wholly wrong and minimizes the importance of the issue. Without the people who stood up to question that type of behavior, we would never have had positive change. We would never live in a world like we do today, where I can look at what my grandmother did as wrong and pray for her forgiveness.
I tell you this story, Governor Beebe, as a warning. My shame will become your grandchildren's shame if you do not change your words and your actions and soon. I am embarrassed by this tale. I am ashamed of my grandmother. Even as I have good memories of her, I cannot forget that racism was a big part of who she was, and it leaves me feeling disgraced and humiliated when I think of it.
Sir, when you spoke in front of the Stonewall Democrats recently, you told them that you do not believe they deserved the same equal rights afforded to their heterosexual neighbors. You told them that not only should they accept their second-class status, but that they should refrain from being visible and active in demanding equality. You were no better than my grandmother standing in the front yard, shaking her fist at the 101st.
Some have tried to explain your actions. Some have said that even though you don't need to say those words in hope of being reelected, that perhaps you have said them in order to help build your legacy, in order to influence the way you will be remembered. What you did, and what you said, will accomplish just that, Mr. Governor.
But you have a choice, in the same way that Governor George Wallace had a choice. He chose to change his position from the easy answer to the right answer. Sixteen years after his 1963 inaugural speech in which he spoke strongly in favor of segregation (“segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever), he said the words “I was wrong. Those days are over and they ought to be over.”
And hear me when I say, sir, that if you do not open your eyes and realize you are wrong just as he was wrong, just as my grandmother was wrong, that this is an issue of equality for all and civil rights and human rights, your grandchildren will remember you with shame in their hearts. I pray for you just as I pray for my grandmother:
May God forgive you,
Susan Virginia Wallace
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