Commentary

We all have a stake in making a difference

(This is an updated commentary from my podcast, “One Mother’s Voice: In the Name of Justice.” Nonetheless, the message is still relevant and underlies my criminal justice advocacy.)

I thought that dealing with the stress of having an incarcerated loved one would end with the death of my son in prison, so many years ago.

It did not.

Three of my grandsons have served time in prison: one of them, who struggles with mental illness, is in and out of jail/treatment programs, often out of touch with family and a source of constant concern.

Another grandson is back in jail for parole violations. Two months ago, he collapsed with mild convulsions, yet doctors could find no apparent cause. I believe, however, that the causes are rooted in his undiagnosed depression and anxiety as well as untreated psychological and emotional issues.

My third grandson died suddenly on March 29, 2018 at the age of 30, leaving behind a grieving family, who had looked on helplessly as he struggled to turn his life around despite numerous obstacles.

In addition, we believe that he suffered from trauma, the result of beating (he told us) at the hands of prison correctional officers.

These young men are the reason that I have dedicated my life to educating others, especially mothers with sons in prison, about the far-reaching, negative consequences  of incarceration on criminal justice-involved persons, their families, and communities 

July 2017

When my son was incarcerated during eighties and nineties, I knew very little about the criminal justice system. I hated the arduous trips to visit him in jail or in prison. They were demoralizing and demeaning. Most New York State prisons are located in upstate counties, so travel would entail six or eight hours (one-way) on crowded, uncomfortable charter buses operated by private individuals or Greyhound.

Once at a prison, we waited in dirty, cheerless rooms to be summoned by correctional officers to show identification and to get searched.

There was little effort to make the surroundings even minimally appealing for visitors. Bathrooms were dirty, smelly and often without toilet paper. These conditions told me a lot about how correctional administrators viewed the families—mostly black and Hispanic—who came for the visits. We were not deserving of better.

I could only imagine (or rather, I couldn’t imagine) what conditions were like behind the iron doors for inmates. In fact, I think the visits offered them a chance to get off the cell-blocks and feel “free” for a few hours.

As much as I dreaded the oppressive atmosphere of the prisons, I understood that it was important for me to see my son and for him to see me. I wanted him to remember that he was more than a number; he was part of a family that loved and missed him.

Some days, however, the visits were painful because they reminded him of how much he missed the familiar comforts of family, friends, and community.

I saw the effects of prison life in his sad eyes and his ragged nails chewed down to the skin. I never spoke on this because he wanted me to believe that he could handle prison. On the other hand, I never told him how the visits depressed me and drained my positive energy.

Thoughts of him in prison hung like dark clouds over my day-to-day life.

During the most commonplace of activities—family get-togethers, holiday celebrations, or vacation trips–I would envision him alone in his cell.

The day that I learned that he had died (after being found unconscious in his cell) I was devastated. My worst fear–that he would die in prison–had come to pass.

My initial reaction, ironically, was relief; for this, I was deeply ashamed.

Eventually, I came to understand my reaction: I could let go of the fear, sadness, and anxiety that had haunted my days and nights for nearly two decades.

I don’t blame “the system” for my son’s choices.

However, he did not commit his crimes in a vacuum. His behavior (as for all of us) was the result of complex, inter-related factors, including racial disparities, punitive criminal justice policies, economic inequality, flawed family dynamics, societal expectations, and personal history.

There is much work to be done to keep other sons (and increasingly daughters) out of prison or to provide resources, support, and opportunities for those who return to our communities from prison.

As a nation, we all have a stake in affecting positive outcomes.

Donate to advocacy groups, write letters to your representatives, tell your story, push for legislation, organize in your community, join or create a support group.

I chose to turn my loss into something bigger—a mission to support other mothers with sons in prison.

Wherever or however you choose to make a difference–locally, nationally, privately or publicly–is not important. Just do something.

 

 

 

 

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The Legacy Museum and The National Peace and Justice Memorial

A Dark History Re-visited

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 )


DAY TWO

April 26

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.

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Anna Devere Smith and Ava DuVernay (courtesy D. Dougherty)
  • 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.”

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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

DAY THREE

April 27

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Photo by Wista Jeanne Johnson

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.