From April 25 through April 27, I was in Montgomery, Alabama, for the opening of two new museums commemorating the African-American experience in America and to attend the Equal Justice Initiative’s Peace and Justice Summit. (Read about Day One )
A gathering of the faithful: An electric energy permeated the Equal Justice Initiative’s Peace and Justice Summit weekend in Montgomery, Alabama. When I arrive downtown to the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel, the lobby is abuzz with eager attendees: black, white, brown, young and old. During the sessions that I attend, presenters such as Michelle Alexander (civil rights lawyer, scholar and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness); Ava DuVernay (producer and film director–Selma, 13, and A Wrinkle in Time); U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ); Common (actor/poet/hip-hop artis); Sherrilyn Ifill (lawyer, author, and President and Director-Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund); Anna Devere Smith (actress, playwright, and professor); and Congressman John Lewis (civil rights leader) speak in stark terms about historical racism in American that fueled the enslavement of Africans, public lynchings, and legal discrimination and continues to fuel the machinery of mass incarceration.
- Alexander says that remembering our history—especially the atrocities committed against African-Americans in the past– is a critical part of “birthing a new nation… based on truth and reconciliation.” She emphasizes that slavery didn’t die, it evolved into mass incarceration. She equates lynchings to the epidemic of police shootings of black men. “Today’s videos spotlight the killing of black men, so there is no way to hide the truth. There is no data collected on the number of blacks killed by police. We need to count every life because they matter. She called for “a radical grassroots movement…to shake the foundations of the system. She says that in the same way that civil rights workers organized communities in the south. Today’s advocates need to have a strategy that builds a movement “state by state, community by community, and county-by-county.”
Michelle Alexander (courtesy D. Dougherty)
- Moderator and journalist Jelani Cobb addresses the issue of violence against black women that dates back to the terrorizing and lynching of black women whose men were lynched. (In 1918, Mary Turner, a pregnant 19-year old from Lowndes County, Georgia, publicly denies that her husband is guilty of murdering a plantation owner; as a consequence, Turner is hung by her feet, set on fire, and shot. While still alive, the killers split her stomach open, and the baby slides out. When they see that the infant is still alive, they stomp it to death.) Cobb points out that even today black women are left to deal with the collateral damage of mass incarceration. He noted that Ida B. Wells, journalist, suffragette, and one of the founders of the NAACP, investigated and documented lynchings after three of her friends who owned a grocery store were lynched
- En route to downtown, Juawannia Peterson, my Uber driver, a Montgomery resident and recent communications graduate, informs me that descendants of lynching victims are in Montgomery for interviews and to visit the National Memorial to Peace and Justice. Although I don’t get to see them, I hear, later, that some family members spent hours at the Memorial. She adds that she’s spotted Michael Steele, conservative Republican and former head of the Republican National Committee, and Jesse L. Jackson, civil rights leader, politician, and Baptist minister. This is the place to be this weekend!
- At the final session I attend, Common shares the stage with Senator Booker and educator/activist Brittany Packnett. He walks on stage to shouts and screams of approval. At one point, he does an impromptu rap dedicated to Booker and thoroughly engages the audience. Common says that activism has been the root of his career. “It started when I would help people in the community who had less than I did.” Common has visited prisons in CA and encourages other artists and rappers to “get involved.”
The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration
Thursday afternoon (after months of anticipation), I finally enter The Legacy Museum located at the site of an old warehouse where thousands of human beings were sold into bondage. Like other visitors, I silently shuffle into the museum’s small, dimly lit entryway (for me, symbolic of the dark days that we are about to re-visit).
The first wall that catches my attention is covered with the words of the enslaved.
“(An old man) was the only human being who was interested in me.” J. Parker, separated from his mother
“I saw scenes that made my heart bleed.” R. Sanders
“I saw seven children taken from their mother (who shouted), ‘Gone, all gone! Why don’t God kill me?'” H. Jacobson
Throughout the museum, images are stark, yet revealing. One wall-sized photo shows a group of bare-foot black boys or “orphans”staring glumly into the camera in tattered black and white striped coveralls. The legend beneath the photo reads ” …black orphans were considered, ‘criminals’ and forced to work.”
Another exhibit employs graphic animation to chronicle the lynching of a John Heartful. It depicts a crowd of thousands standing in the rain to witness the horrific lynching. Heartful is beaten, hung, and shot 220 times until his body drops from the tree. His fingers are amputated and passed around; then his body is burned. The audio notes that “nine million black people were terrorized by the threat of lynching violence.”
In another area, seventy-seven wall plagues honor “the courage and tenacity of our forebears,” including Nat Turner (black slave turned rebel); Medgar Evers (slain civil rights leader); James Baldwin (American novelist and social critic in 1960’s ); Ella Baker (civil and human rights activist); Barbara Jordan (first African-American congresswoman from the South); and Josiah Henson (black author, abolitionist, and minister during 1800’s).
A collection of signs from the segregated South reminds us of the ugliness and banality of segregation:
- “Whites Only”
- “No Negroes or Apes Allowed”
- “No Negroes Allowed After Sundown”
- “White People Only–Mexicans and Negroes Stay Out”
- “No Niggers. No Jews. No Dogs”
A video installation documents the story of Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 28 years on death row, after a false conviction for the murder of three men despite no physical evidence. The Equal Justice Initiative worked for years to win his release. His major regret is that his mother (“the love of my life”) died while he was in prison.
The Legacy Museum carefully reconstructs the progression from enslavement to mass incarceration, a reminder that today’s criminal justice inequities and consequences are no accident.
National Memorial for Peace and Justice
I spend several minutes taking pictures and basking in the serene beauty of the landscape outside the memorial, which commemorates lynchings that occurred between 1877 and 1950. When I show my pre-purchased ticket, a young man tells me that the park closes at 5:00 P.M. I explain that my confirmation letter says the memorial closes at sunset; he apologizes but doesn’t allow any more visitors.
I am very disappointed but vow to return in the near future.
What does it all mean?
As a lover of history, especially African-American history, much of what I have seen at the museum is not unknown to me. What makes the experience powerful is the linking of one period in history to the next and to contemporary issues: police brutality, incarceration, racism, inequality, and white supremacy.
I do not come away angry with the perpetrators of violence (that does little to bring about change), but inspired by the resilience, bravery, and courage of African-Americans who resisted and rebelled, led movements, and achieved hard-won victories despite systemic racism, legal discrimination, and economic deprivation.
Attending The Peace and Justice Summit has been celebratory and cathartic. Fighting for criminal justice reform, economic equality, and the elimination of racial disparities can be frustrating, demoralizing, and depressing. For every step forward, a new affront takes us back a step.
Nonetheless, the energy and wisdom of the speakers as well as the camaraderie and enthusiasm of attendees inspire me.
The supporters of Trumpism (anti-immigration, pro-tough on crime, anti-press) might not know it, but that there is a movement for justice that is growing.
I am proud to be part of it.