Over the weekend, Josh and I took a short pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama to visit the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. We started at the museum on Saturday morning. It was crowded. It was a beautiful, blue sky kind of day.
When I walked in, I did not experience the kind of punch in the gut threadbare shame and grief I might have expected. No, what I experienced was the pain of black American humanity laid bare for me to witness. Immediately I was drawn into the suffering of individuals with names, faces, families, and stories. The museum, for me, demanded that I not use a large blanket of generalization to look at slavery and the horrors it created as something fixed in time and place, now complete. It is what Ida B. Wells called “our country’s greatest crime,” and the aftereffects of it are not yet resolved. The museum exhibits demanded that I personalize it, that I see a human story, a particular experience, and that I acknowledge the pain a system of bigotry and violence has reaped on individuals and on a nation whose basic founding tenant, ironically, was freedom.
Black people who were enslaved in our country were mothers, fathers, lovers, children, artists, thinkers. They were people who laughed, cried, sang, and also lived in fear of what might happen to them if they did any of those things too loudly.
I was particularly struck by a photograph taken of a lynching in Oklahoma. The photographer must have stood on a bank of the river some ways down, or maybe sat in a canoe. There was a railroad bridge over the water, supported by warren trusses. Dozens of white onlookers stood on it, watching. From the bridge, from barely visible ropes, hung two black bodies - a mother and a son - as if they were floating in mid-air. The clues that they weren’t were their arms by their sides and their clothes hanging limp, not ballooned as floating might entail. Their names were Laura and L.D. Nelson. They were lynched by a mob who entered their jail cell in 1911 the night before their arraignment for allegedly shooting an armed white man who trespassed on their property.
Laura and LD Nelson. Mother and Son. It is said that Laura had a baby girl with her in the jail cell when she was dragged from it in the night.
The photograph of the lynching was reproduced as a postcard. I imagine it served as a warning to black folks and a statement of power for whites. A postcard. To send to people. Can you even fathom, passing through Okemah, Oklahoma and sending such a postcard with some glib “Wish you were here” scrawled on the back?
I am reminded of James Baldwin’s story “Going to Meet the Man” in which he traverses the psyche of a white boy, the son of a sheriff, who first witnessed a lynching at age 7. Baldwin miraculously evokes compassion for the little boy, showing us the twisted family and societal values he is part of that evoke murderous bigotry and racism. He grows up in a system that shows him no other way. He was “caught up,” as Bill might say.
I summarize the story not to okay it, not to draw upon our sympathies for murderers and bigots, but to round out that the hater and the hated are both affected by a sick system. Racism and bias is passed on from generation to generation just like a great-grandmother’s wardrobe. The Legacy Museum really implores us to ask ourselves how we have perpetuated it. Turning away is allowing; active participation is enacting; working against is necessary. Not courageous, necessary.
Atop a hill, half a mile away at the memorial, we walked into a descending labyrinth of hanging corten steel columns, symbolic of hanging bodies. They are lit from below in the evening. The walk over was quiet; so noiseless we could hear the whispers of leaves like voices carrying on the breeze. The memorial felt haloed and sacred, a listening place, a remembering place. Over the course of ten years, the Equal Justice Initiative researched and inscribed names and dates of those lynched between 1808 and 1945. The columns are arranged alphabetically by state, then by counties within the state. Harris County has one. The known lynched are:
JOHN WALTON 07.30.1890
BERT SMITH 09.21.1917
ROBERT POWELL 06.20.1928
Researches documented 4,000 names; they suspect there are thousands more whose bodies were destroyed or unrecorded. They continue to search. Most of the names belong to men, at least two lynched for falling in love with a white woman.
While the terror of lynching no longer pervades the south, I left feeling keenly aware that we are still in the not yet. We have not yet dealt with our legacy of slavery and its after effects of economic, social, and legal inequity. We have not yet achieved a society where all feel equally valued, seen, and heard. We have not yet dealt with our ghosts or created the world in which we wish to live. The memorial paves a way for us to acknowledge, pay homage to, and pave a way forward. It’s an invitation to reckon with old ways and dream up new ones. The memorial, while it holds space for grief, is also immensely hopeful. Both the shadows and the light are there. We are between the two.
For further reading, go to: www.eji.org
Listen to: Reconciling with Old Ghosts