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The Legacy Museum and The National Peace and Justice Memorial

A Walk into History

For the next two days, I will be in Montgomery, Alabama for the opening of two new museums commemorating the African American experience in America and attend the Justice Summit.

DAY ONE

April 25, 2018

The first thing that I notice as I exit the Montgomery Regional Airport is a sweet, distinctive smell in the air.

Having lived in Savannah, Georgia, for couple of years, I recognize it immediately. It is the smell of the South, vastly different from the air in Nevada (my current home state) and New York (my place of birth).

I can’t pinpoint its source–perhaps the spring plants native to southern Alabama: Hubricht’s Blue Star, southern blazing star, cream wild indigo, or foam flower.

The airport is surprisingly quiet with only two police officers greeting travelers and directing them to taxis. There is none of the crazy bustle of big city airports. In fact, I see only four or five passenger cars stop for pick-ups. No honking. No yelling. No cars three deep.

My shuttle driver, Nakeil, a native of Montgomery, greets me warmly and asks if this is my first trip to Montgomery. It is.

As we drive to the Hampton Inn Montgomery, he says, “I’m gonna give you a bit of history. We are traveling the same road that Martin Luther King walked from Selma to Montgomery.” He points out a highway sign, “Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.”

It is one thing to see the march in old television footage; it is quite another to see it in person. I realize just how long that 1965 walk was and admire the commitment and fortitude of those who trekked 54 miles along the then two-lane highway, facing crowds of hostile whites and law enforcement officers.

Nakeil explains that there are markers along the way that tell where marchers stopped to rest, to eat, or to sleep. “I asked my father if he had marched, but he said that he couldn’t because he was working in ‘the fields.’ ”

Cotton fields.

His father and the other cotton pickers watched the walkers from afar. “He told me that no-one realized the significance of the march at the time.”

Montgomery is small, but “full of history,” he tells me. It is home to the Civil Rights Memorial and the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University.

I am here to attend the opening of two new museums: The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in remembrance of the “4400 African American men, women and children hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.”

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Photo by Wista Jeanne Johnson

The new museums are the brain child of Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), located in Montgomery, which is “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”

Stevenson has received numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award and the National Medal of Liberty (ACLU).

His 2014 book, Just Mercy, a New York Times bestseller, chronicles the story of the EJI, the people it represents, and the necessity of confronting injustice.

Ironically, some of the employees at the airport hotel, including one black woman, Makeeta, admit that they had no knowledge of the museums until folks started booking rooms. Nonetheless, she hopes to take her young daughter soon because “she likes to learn things.”

That’s why I am here.

There is still so much to learn about the African American experience in America, the legacy and implications of mass incarceration, and the contributions a formerly enslaved people.