Another August Birthday To Honor

Two Alabama babies, a boy in Barbour County and a girl in Montgomery County, were born seventy-five years ago this past August.

The boy baby, George Corley Wallace, spent most of his adult life doing battle with ideas in the political arena. The life and times of Governor Wallace are well documented. He used the flawed ideology of racial segregation to construct his political fame, but its failure did not discredit him. Few human beings have enjoyed more individual notoriety. This is a paradox that perhaps future historians may be able to explain.

The girl baby, Sadie Gardener Penn, spent her adult life opposing the ideology that Governor Wallace used so successfully to build his political career. Mrs. Penn performed her work in a different arena. She labored in public school classrooms of Bullock and Montgomery Counties as an English teacher; educating, shaping, inspiring and disciplining young Alabama minds. During the 1940s and 50s Sadie Penn, as did thousands of other classroom teachers throughout the Confederate South, faced the daily challenge of teaching in segregated schools.

Legendary Bullock County education administrator, Tessie Oliver Nixon, gave young Sadie Gardener her first teaching assignment after graduation from Alabama State University in 1941. She taught at a rural school in the Aberfoil Community.

It was at this rural Bullock County school that Sadie met her late husband, Luther. Luther Penn was the school’s principal. Together they raised three children: Ojeda L. Penn, Wilbur K. Penn and Vanzetta Penn McPherson.

George Wallace began his political career as circuit judge for Bullock and Barbour Counties. In 1958, while serving in this capacity, he impounded Bullock and Barbour Counties’ voting records to prevent them from being turned over to the United State Commission on Civil Rights. The Commission was in Montgomery conducting hearings on voting discrimination at that time. Author Frank Sikora writes a fascinating account of these hearings in his book, The Judge: The Life and Opinions of Alabama’s Frank M. Johnson, Jr. He states that . . .”In Bullock County, from 1952 through 1959, a total of five blacks were registered [to vote].”

Then as now, racial politics challenged teachers attempting to imbue their students with a sense of civic and governmental pride, a belief in social, economical and political fairness, as well as an appetite for constitutional justice. Mrs. Sadie Penn. . .one among thousands of teachers burdened with the task of making sense of our seemingly senseless societal and political structure to young people. . .succeeded.

One may ask, how do we measure a teacher’s success? We often measure success by the money one makes. We call a farmer successful when he or she produces and harvests a good crop. We declare a politician successful when he or she wins an election. But what is the yardstick for teachers’ success? Is it the cumulative successes of all the students they have taught ¼ or the success of our society? Everyone I talk to can name at least one teacher who made a significant impact on their life. Is that success? Clearly, one can successfully argue that America’s manifested greatness is due to the success of Mrs. Penn and thousands of teachers like her. Teachers deserve society’s appreciation.

This past month, the media reported many stories about Alabama’s most successful politician. Many people, thousands across Alabama and around the nation, revere Governor Wallace. As we celebrate his 75th birthday, we must not forget one important point. We must remember that if he had succeeded with his principal political idea. . . “Segregation Forever”. . . it would have destroyed our state and perhaps the nation.

Why then do we celebrate the birth of that baby boy born in Barbour County 75 years ago? Perhaps we celebrate him because he failed to impose his segregationist ideology upon us? Or because he sought our redemption for his opportunistic politics? Or maybe both?

There is one thing that we know for sure: in our system of government a leader only leads with a mandate of the voters. Alabama voters gave George Wallace his political marching orders. He stood in the “school house” door because the voters sent him there.

Today Alabama’s people are on the verge of lifting the state from the statistical bottom of almost every demographic indicator. Too little credit for this success goes to the individuals who toiled in the classrooms of Alabama’s public schools. At the same time we assign too little blame to those opportunistic politicians responsible for keeping the state at the bottom.

Congratulations and Happy 75th Birthday to Mrs. Sadie Penn, a successful, Alabama schoolteacher.

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Originally Published: 6 September 1994, Montgomery Advertiser

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