Today was spent in the Alabama capital of Montgomery, in many ways the most significant place in the Civil Rights Movement. This is where activist Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a public bus that kicked off the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott, in which tens of thousands of ordinary citizens protested continuing segregation in public life.
We immediately visited the Alabama State Capitol, where the March from Selma-Montgomery ended. We visited the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King preached during his time of leading the community during the boycott in 1955-56. I sat down and played the piano in the church, playing “This Little Light of Mine” in honour of Fannie Lou Hamer and the many others. The spirited tour guide enjoyed the music and the I could imagine the church packed with people, pouring their voices into the African American spirituals. We then visited the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s Civil Rights Memorial which was amazingly poignant, and designed by Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington DC. I also visited the Freedom Riders Museum, dedicated to the students who made the journey from Nashville and were terrorised when their Greyhound bus arrived at the bus station in Montgomery. A participant on this bus journey was SNCC member, Congressman John Lewis.
However, as the day progressed, my attention turned to Montgomery’s older past, as Montgomery was central to the operation of the Alabama slave trade.
Commerce Street in downtown Montgomery has plaques all along the street marking the locations where warehouses once stood where the slaves were confined until they could be sold during the slave auction. Among these people were a series of children, and there were warehouses to hold them especially. The street was built wide enough so that the carts could travel up it with sufficient space.
Today the Equal Justice Initiative is located at 122 Commerce Street. I include the link here of the unveiling of the plaque outside the EJI office. https://eji.org/news/eji-dedicates-markers-montgomery-alabama-slavery-in-america In addition, upon my visit to EJI, they gave me a copy of their report which extensively documents the nature of slavery in America, slave trading practices in Montgomery, and the post-slavery experience. In his Desert Island Discs, Bryan Stevenson comments about the new threat of terror that Americans fear and are trying to impose war on. But in reality, the terror that Americans inflicted upon slaves and then when they lynched African Americans was very palpable and terrifying. Terror has been in America since 1776. I can’t say enough about the work that EJI does – in fact I wish I could join Bryan Stevenson’s team.
The most devastating, meaningful, and excrutiatingly sad project is their new National Lynching Memorial which is almost finished and will be turned in to a memorial. After the end of slavery in 1865, and the premature end of Reconstruction, Southern whites who had fought to keep slavery regained power of their state governments. The convict leasing and sharecropping systems were used to restore white economic dominance, and discriminatory laws deprived black people of political rights. Violent intimidation was the method of enforcement.
Lynching emerged as a vicious tool of racial control in the South after the Civil War, as a way to reestablish white supremacy and suppress black civil rights. At the end of the 19th century, Southern lynch mobs targeted and terrorized African Americans with impunity.
Lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation. Lynchings were violent and public events that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. Many African Americans who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens) for bumping into a white person, or wearing their military uniforms after World War I, or not using the appropriate title when addressing a white person. People who participated in lynchings were celebrated and acted with impunity, purchasing victims’ body parts as souvenirs and posing for photographs with hanging corpses to mail to loved ones as postcards.
EJI researchers have documented 4075 racial terror lynchings of African Americans across the Deep South. No prominent public memorial or monument commemorates the thousands of African Americans who were lynched in America. EJI is building the following monument which is described, hauntingly, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOb2xpoXe_I
I learned about another project that is connected to this as I met with Donna Beisel, the Director of Education at the Rosa Parks Museum. She kindly toured me around the museum, and at the end we visited the temporary exhibit. As I turned the corner into the room, I was transported back to 1994 when I visited Auschwitz. I remember walking into the room where piles of suitcases with names were all thrown into a pile and then memorialized behind glass. This exhibit sent shivers down my spine in the same way. There were shirts and shirts hanging from the wall. The shirts were dirty, as though they had been worn to toil the land in. Each shirt was tagged with a name. Donna could sense I was moved, and she began to tell me about her own experience. She and her husband had volunteered for EJI to collect soil from a particular location in Alabama. They had gone out with a jar and a shover and collected soil from that exact location. The name of the man who she collected soil for was Jack Turner. The soil was put in a jar with his name on it, and will be added to the memorial at EJI.
I immediately thought about Jewish ritual, and the kinds of brachot (blessings) or psalms that one would recite, and which melodies would fit best. I wondered if EJI had put together a service of sorts, so that the volunteers would be able to have a ceremony that could help them as they collected this soil. Donna responded by saying that the two of them sat in a moment of silence and then prayed.
EJI director Bryan Stevenson has spoken about the power of soil. “In this soil, there is the sweat of the enslaved. In the soil there is the blood of victims of racial violence and lynching. There are tears in the soil from all those who labored under the indignation and humiliation of segregation. But in the soil there is also the opportunity for new life, a chance to grow something hopeful and healing for the future.”
This is the beginning of a truth and reconciliation process that needs to happen for a country to face its past and be able to recover from mass violence.
Throughout reflection, Kellie and I constantly discussed barriers and challenges to our everyday encounters. I experience this recurring burden of despair. That despair grew inside my gut with each narrative we heard, both at the Civil Rights Memorial and when thinking about the Lynching Project. These people were killed by injustice. And can I just say, “killed by injustice” is a phrase I use to sugar-coat words that would make you feel sick to your stomach otherwise. That despair was only exacerbated with the knowledge that racism is grounded so deeply in American roots. “The Land of the Free, Home of the Brave.” Really? How can a country be brave and free that uses abridged historical narratives to justify its past? We all must engage in this history more honestly, and a memorial creates that opportunity.