On Thursday, April 26, 2018, The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. It was the vision of Attorney Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). The grand opening was attended by thousands from all over the United States and several foreign countries. The Legacy Museum is the culmination of years of research into America’s history of racial inequality and continued exploitation of Africans brought here in chains against their will. It contains a mind blowing display of documents, graphics, artifacts, video and audio memorabilia.
The National Memorial addresses the legacy of slavery and the destruction of black humanity by recognizing the thousands of people lynched during the reign of racial terrorism. This memorial consists of over 800 columns with names of known, and references to nameless victims with only the date and location of their lynching. The columns are arranged by counties in the United States. There is acknowledgement that there are countless other lynching victims whose names, dates and actual locations of lynching are unknown, only whispered about by family members.
The author of this article was one of over 400 volunteers who came to Montgomery to participate in the grand opening. Volunteers were eager to meet other volunteers and all were eager to share why we were there. The common reason - this was something very, very important and we wanted to be a part of it. I arrived in Montgomery Monday night, April 23, and attended volunteer training at the Equal Justice Initiative headquarters the next morning along with hundreds of other volunteers from every walk of life all over the country. The Equal Justice Initiative is housed in a building on Commerce Street, which was once the center of warehouses that held enslaved people until they could be sold at auction. I was perhaps one of the oldest members of the volunteer team. The training was very well organized and managed by a very diverse group of young tech savvy, personable professionals. Once training was completed, instructions and expectations set, paraphernalia distributed I had the rest of Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday free to preview the museum, memorial and visit the city of Montgomery.
It was very apparent that Montgomery was united on accomplishing something incredible, and committed to visitors having a very pleasant hassle free experience. Someone has said that Montgomery is perhaps the most memorialized city in the country. I found this to be true as I wandered around the downtown area. There are historical markers and buildings at every turn, recording significant events and locations that contributed to the tapestry of our tortured history of enslavement, rebellion and subsequent African American struggle for freedom. Few cities outside Washington D.C. capture and memorialize the nation’s struggle with enslavement, rebellion, and struggle for freedom as Montgomery does. The remembrances of these events are almost layered on top of each other. In this writer's opinion no other city is as well suited as Montgomery to be the home of the Equal Justice Initiative’s museum and memorial about enslavement and subsequent extra-judicial punishment, lynching. Montgomery grew to be one of the largest slave trading/investing cities in the United States. Over 164 licenses were issued to slave traders operating within the city from 1848 to 1860. Historical markers are prominently displayed throughout the area recording that history and the water and rail system that supported this inhumane commerce.
The historical marker pinpointing the exact spot Rosa Parks boarded a bus on December 1, 1965 setting off the Montgomery Bus Boycott is directly across the street from the marker in front of the building where the telegram sent on April 11, 1861 by L. P. Walker, Confederate States Secretary of War, to Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard in Charleston, South Carolina starting the Civil War. It sits in front of the Winter Building which housed the telegraph office on the second floor. This building was added to the National Historic Register in 1972 and the address is 2 Dexter Avenue.
Four blocks East on Dexter Avenue at 454 sits Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, now Dexter Avenue King Baptist Church, pastored by the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr from 1954 until 1960. One block farther East, Dexter Avenue dead ends into the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, where Governor George Wallace stood looking down Dexter Avenue, on January 14, 1963 during his inauguration and uttered his famous refrain, “segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever”. Ironically on March 25, 1965 in the same location but denied access to the steps, facing a crowd of over 25,000 lined up along Dexter Avenue, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered one of his famous speeches titled “Our God is Marching On”. This speech came after the successful march from Selma to Montgomery and is most remembered for a recurring theme of “how long, not long”. He was not allowed to stand on the steps of the capitol but a speaker’s platform was hastily erected on the flatbed of a truck in front of the capitol steps.
One block south of Dexter Avenue King Baptist Church is the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on Washington Street. Directly across the street is the Civil Rights Memorial with a circular black granite table containing the names of 41 people, who died in the struggle for equal treatment between 1954 and 1958. The table sits out front with water running from the center over their names and dropping evenly at the outer edges. As one family member of a lynched victim reminded me, water symbolizes life. It was my joy to watch a very diverse visiting group of elementary school students and their teachers joyfully playing in the water and running their hands over the names after having watched the documentary inside, “Names in the Water”. It was also my honor to share that moment with the first elected African American mayor of my hometown, Brownsville, Tennessee, the Honorable Mayor Williams Rawls Jr. Without the sacrifices of the people whose names that water flowed over and hundreds of others, his election would not have been possible.
Volunteers were allowed to preview the museum and memorial prior to opening day. In addition to artifacts and memorabilia the museum incorporates the latest sophistication in technology complete with holograms. It includes a superior display of just how invasive slave trading and investing were in the city of Montgomery. This perhaps explains why Montgomery was called the “Cradle of the Confederacy”, the old adage “follow the money”, legalized slave trading, and its supporting cast was a very lucrative business. The museum very adequately and overwhelmingly explains the harshness, brutality, and inhumanity, of enslavement and lays bare the path to subsequent mass incarceration today, all in the name of profit.
Jars of soil collected at known lynching sites throughout the country are on display as a part of the Community Remembrance Project. Each jar contains the name, date and location of the lynched victim, or if the name is unknown just the date and location. Each jar sits poignantly on the shelf with all the others and each conveys their own separate story. Having been involved in the collection of soil in six of the jars, I am also well aware that the mere collection of soil from the sites can be emotional and some form of healing and connection can take place. It draws participants back in time and to the reality that was the victims. One cannot leave the museum without understanding the devastating effects on people and their subsequent generations forced to divest themselves of everything that made them human, for the creation of wealth for someone else.
The memorial with its hanging columns overlooking the city of Montgomery, without the benefit of electronics, artifacts, and documents makes instantly very real what was ahead for the next 400 years of enslavement, segregation, racism and terrorism for people brought to this country in chains. As one enters the memorial, one encounters a diorama of six adults shackled in chains (see attached photo) with a woman in chains shackled, and holding a baby while reaching for the man in front of her who is also chained, shackled, with his hands bound. For me the writer this was a gut wrenching visual portrayal of the total destruction of any sense of family and community visited upon enslaved people that continued from generation to generation, legally for 254 years followed by another 150 years of racism and terrorism. The after effects are still with us. Biblical teachings mandate that the man is the protector and provider for the woman and child, and that we are our brother’s keeper. How is a man supposed to protect and provide when shackled? How is a woman supposed to be a help mate to a man stripped powerless? How is a man supposed to maintain headship when bound and stripped of his manhood? How does a man or a woman teach a boy or girl how to be a man or a woman? How does a man and woman so shackled and torn apart teach their offspring how to raise a family? How can a community of people be their brother’s keeper when all the community members are shackled? It is the family unit within a community that all of mankind depends on. I certainly am not a theologian, but I know enough to know that no passage of the bible referencing slavery endorses the total destruction of a family or the extended family and community that supports families. This does not excuse today’s aberrant behavior or fatherless homes in the inner cities of our nation, but it does underscore the devastating effects of centuries of denial of a people's knowledge of themselves, their humanity and their inability to pass on the benefits of their labor, along with generational knowledge of who they are. While there are no excuses for aberrant behavior, the legacy does leave the victims and their generations with a sense of hopelessness, whether they realize it or not.
In the distance, past the diorama the columns with the names of the lynched victims can be seen. There was for me a serene presence and at times, it was as if the spirits of those named there and countless others known and unknown were watching the throngs of people passing by. Duplicate columns were arrayed outside for each county to retrieve and put in an appropriate place in the county of lynching victims. We made a plea to EJI for Haywood County Tennessee to be among the first to retrieve the matching column. It is home to the first known NAACP member lynched in the line of duty, Elbert Williams in 1940. The ceremony would be presided over by the first African American mayor elected in one of two counties in Tennessee, where African Americans were denied the right to register to vote until 1960.
Prior to my shift on Thursday morning I had the privilege and honor of meeting and talking with Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, perhaps the most strident anti-lynching crusader in the history of the United States. We discussed at length the work of her great grandmother and the efforts underway to erect a statue of Ida B. Wells in Chicago. I urge all Americans to visit the site www.idawellsmonument.org and donate. Had her grandmother's’ efforts resulted in greater success, there may have been less columns overlooking Montgomery.
Thursday morning was the first day, and my shift began at 11am at the memorial. There was a light rain most of the day temperatures hovered in the mid-50s lower 60s. There was a steady flow of visitors, almost oblivious to the rain. Visitors were very kind to each other and conversations with total strangers flowed easily with a common theme and recognition that their fellow humans had done something awful to other humans. There was tremendous acknowledgement that very little was actually understood about this horrific act of terrorism. I also sensed that there was an unspoken realization that humankind, we Americans, have the capacity to repeat this even in this enlightened information intensive age of the 21st Century. Perhaps that realization contributed to EJI adding two days of Peace and Justice Summit seminars throughout the two day event that focused attention on the underlying issues important for the community of mankind.
I had many conversations with visitors, some I started and some they started. I met and conversed with people whose family members had been lynched, and I also conversed with people who admitted their family members had been part of the lynch mobs. There were families who lived on both coasts, but traveled to Montgomery to experience this as a family unit. One conversation in particular stood out. It was with a visitor who traveled from one of the Caribbean Island nations just for the opening. After conversing for several moments, he said to me in the patois of his island nation, “we need to do this back home”. We both paused, acknowledged that the single biggest difference between the two of us was a “boat stop”. We exchanged contact information and promised to remain in touch. Having lived in the Caribbean for four years and visiting as often as I can, it was and is very easy to understand that enslavement of Africans during the trans-Atlantic slave trade was a financial system and had nothing to do with hate for the sake of hate. The great wealth that exists today of both the United States and Europe was created on the backs of enslaved people.
The efforts of EJI and the opening of this museum and memorial are very important first steps in coming to terms with the centuries of economic disparities; subsequent mass incarceration and need for massive criminal justice reform. I do not believe either of those conditions can be effectively addressed in a lasting way without a complete acknowledgement and understanding of the past. This museum and memorial so effectively contributes to this. It is a stroke of absolute genius on the part of Bryan Stevenson.
It was clear to me during this week that among the people I met, and places I visited, there is a groundswell of people of goodwill, on the verge of being ready to engage in a meaningful dialog about our past. This was further confirmed during a tour I joined at the Dexter Avenue King Baptist Church, when I met a white couple and their granddaughter named in honor of Dr. King’s wife, Coretta. I am under no illusion and clearly understand that there is a sizeable group of people, in Montgomery and in this nation that have no interest in this subject matter. I am equally aware that there is another group with pent up desire to in some way confront the past racial differences and their effects in this country. I think it will be possible, but I think it will require being very deliberate. In the words of Bryan Stevenson, being willing to be “proximate” and “uncomfortable”. In addition to the comfortable subjects about healing, reconciliation, livable wages, health care, affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and like subjects, it must include the uncomfortable conversation about the, unspoken of, monster underneath all this, the need for profit. That monster is still there relatively unfazed and relatively unaffected by all of this.
Two final parting thoughts, (1) African Americans have been portrayed in all the various forms of media and mass communication in grossly negative ways. Behind that barrage of conditioning the level of trust and unity among us is greatly diminished, (2) Enslavement was a financial system used to create wealth, the level of hate and ensuing evilness came out of a desire to maintain that financial system by any means necessary. I would encourage people of goodwill everywhere to visit the museum and memorial, you cannot come out of them without a renewed sense of unity and a clear understanding that finances and equal access to resources must be a part of the equation in reducing the hopelessness that is rampant in so many communities, and not just communities of color.