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Column: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration: A Timely and Necessary Memorial

By Drew Williams

To encounter God will always be to first encounter our own brokenness. It is unavoidable. It is deeply uncomfortable. It is, however, critical because without such a revelation there can be no God-led restoration and no healing.

How can there be mercy and reconciliation if we refuse to acknowledge our true need? And in this way, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration will be opened to the public on a six-acre site in the town of Montgomery, Alabama on April 26.

The visionary for this memorial and museum is Bryan Stevenson, the founder and Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). A Harvard-trained attorney, Stevenson created EJI in 1994 to fight for justice for people on death row and found himself transfixed by the South’s history of lynching African Americans. Speaking to Nia-Malika Henderson (a senior political reporter for CNN), Stevenson said, “If I asked the question, ‘Name one African American lynched between 1877 and 1950,’ most people can’t name one person. [Yet] thousands of black people were lynched. Can’t name one. Why? Because we haven’t talked about it. And there are names that we can call from history for all of these other things. But not that.” Working with a team of historians, Stevenson’s research included poring over many years of court records and local newspapers (which often notified the public that a lynching was coming), and tracing and spending time with family members of victims. Their findings evidenced that in a period of over 70 years between 1877 and 1950, 4,000 black men, women and children were cruelly and publicly executed by white Americans.

Growing up in fear of lynching, Rosa Parks, an activist in the civil rights movement and best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott, wrote, “We didn’t have any civil rights. It was just a matter of survival, of existing from one day to the next. I remember going to sleep as a girl hearing the Klan ride at night and hearing a lynching and being afraid the house would burn down.” In the same way, Stevenson comments, “‘[Lynching] was intended to terrorize communities of color, and that’s why all black folks in these communities were victims. Sometimes they would leave the body hanging on a tree, and the family would come to claim it, and they wouldn’t let them.’”

Their careful research was also, for the first time, able to put names and life stories to those who perished. General Lee was lynched in 1904 for knocking on a white woman’s door in Reevesville, South Carolina. Jeff Brown was lynched in 1916 for accidentally bumping into a white girl as he was running to catch a train. Sam Cates was lynched in 1917 for “annoying white girls” in England, Arkansas. Jesse Thornton was lynched in 1940 for failing to address a police officer as “mister.” Irving and Herman Arthur were burned to death by an angry white mob of 3,000 people at a fairground on July 6 1920. A young school teacher, Elizabeth Lawrence, was lynched in 1933 in Birmingham for reprimanding a group of white children for throwing stones at people. Their names and thousands of others are now written on more than 800 steel monuments that hang from what appears to be the Memorial’s floating roof. Each monument represents a county where lynching took place, and each monument lists the names of those who were murdered there. “‘Initially, we thought, Oh, [the memorial] should be pristine and beautiful,’ Stevenson said, but as the research unfolded there was a change of heart. Stevenson explains, ‘This is an ugly history. When it rains, the steel actually drips this kind of rusty-colored water and you’ll see it actually stain the perimeter, and it almost looks like they’re bleeding.’”

“‘I hope [the Memorial] will be sobering but ultimately, inspiring,’ Stevenson said. ‘I hope people will feel like they’ve been deceived a little by the history they’ve been taught and that they need to recover from that. Truth and reconciliation work is always hard. It’s challenging, but if we have the courage to tell the truth and to hear the truth, things happen.’”

Surrounding the memorial site are facsimiles of each of the steel monuments on display. Each county represented has the choice to take that memorial back to their communities as a way to confront their own histories. Stevenson commented, “I think people are never fully ready. It’s always a challenge, but that’s why it’s so important. That’s why it’s so urgent. You could say that this country wasn’t ready for emancipation in 1865. You could say it wasn’t ready to give up lynching.”

Years earlier, on the same street where The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and The Legacy Museum now stand, slave traders once sold women, men and children alongside cows at bustling slave depots. On a back wall of the museum hangs a black and white photo of black men in a cotton field. It would be easy to mistake this as a reminder of slavery. It is, in fact, a photograph taken in the late 1960s from a prison in Texas. Stevenson explained why the photo is there: “Some people are provoked by the idea of slavery and mass incarceration in the same space. This picture gives insight on why we’re talking about this. Southern prisons made incarcerated people pick cotton until the [19]80s and early 1990s. … That’s where that language in the 13th Amendment that prohibits slavery except for people convicted of crimes becomes so relevant. This isn’t an accident.”

In remembrance of this past and recent history, the six-acre site houses a sculpture by the Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. The installation is of a mother with a chain around her neck and her baby held close to her. Stevenson comments, “We want people to see the pain. We want them to see the suffering. We want them to see the anguish. But we also want them to see the humanity, and the strength, and the dignity and the capacity to endure.”

Is Montgomery, the counties represented, and indeed the rest of America and the world ready for the unfurling of the hanging, red-stained steel memorials and the stark uncovering of history that they represent? Stephenson answers, “‘You could say it wasn’t ready for the Montgomery bus boycott. It wasn’t ready for the civil rights movement, but it is necessary because there are too many of us who want to be free, and we can’t get to freedom if we don’t talk more honestly about our past.’ He adds, ‘We shouldn’t think of segregation as just that particularly ignorant relative that says the n-word,’ Stevenson said. ‘We have to understand it as a system that had a legal architecture, and everything was included.’”

From the memorial site you can take a short walk to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. In its basement, activists, led by a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., planned the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott. Later in his ministry, Dr. King preached a sermon entitled “The American Dream” in which he sought to remind us: “You see the founding fathers were really influenced by the Bible. The whole concept of imago dei, as is expressed in Latin, the ‘image of God,’ is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected… that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation. There are no gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God. One day we will learn that. We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers to respect the dignity of and worth of every man. This is why we must fight segregation with all our non-violent might.”

The prophet Jeremiah wrote: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14). My deep conviction is that The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration are timely and prophetic reminders that there can be no true peace until we have attended, with humility and true repentance, to the deepest wounds inflicted. Only then can mercy, peace, healing and reconciliation flow. Only then can we be said to have drawn closer to the Promised Land.

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