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Gov. Kay Ivey’s hurtful history and the way forward

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey joins a growing list of elected leaders forced to admit that they once painted their faces black and performed racist skits or minstrel shows.

Her qualified apology that she did not recall doing it, while pledging to do all she can “to help show the nation that the Alabama of today is a far cry from the Alabama of the 1960s,” only amplifies the problems facing our nation.

The damage of the past has been done and cannot be undone by simply apologizing and promising to act differently in the future. Our country needs to reconcile our racist past before we deliberately work to heal the wounds it has caused for so many of us.

Governor Ivey’s actions — whether they happened 52 years ago or today — are painful to millions of people across the country who have been systematically dehumanized and discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity.

The rise in hate incidents on high school and college campuses across the country contradicts the response of some elected officials that Governor Ivey’s actions were just “youthful indiscretions” of a college student in 1967.

But 52 years after Governor Ivey donned black face for a college skit, people of color in our country continue to be mocked, parodied, and marginalized by fellow Americans and so-called political leaders at all levels. This will never change until government leaders are willing to do the hard work necessary to address the sins of the past.

It will not change until we hold our government leaders accountable for ensuring that these racist ideals do not get codified in policies and laws. It will not change unless we are willing to also put in the work to build bridges across our community divides.

It is unfortunate that the reputation of the state of Alabama continues to wither under the actions of our elected officials. Many people across the country and around the world still judge Alabama by the words of former Governor George Wallace during his fight against integration. They still see the black and white news reels of Bull Connor releasing attack dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protestors in Birmingham. And now the past actions of our current governor along with the draconian abortion bill that she signed and her pandering to an abhorrent political agenda that promotes racist legislation threaten to take the state of Alabama and its reputation backward. 

We must do more to uplift the voices and actions of people in Alabama who are fighting against hate and bigotry. Every day, as the interim president of the SPLC, I have the honor of serving more than 365 staff who are dedicating their lives to upholding the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I continue to meet leaders in our allied organizations across this great state who are working within an anti-racism framework to build a better society.

The landscape and narrative in Alabama has been dramatically altered by the Equal Justice Initiative’s Memorial for Peace and Justice and the movement for reconciliation. We stand ready to work with Governor Ivey, EJI and other organizations across the state to do the hard work of reconciling our past to improve our future. But we cannot get there through denial. The truth is the only way that we can move forward.

Photo by Brynn Anderson/AP