The past few days have been an intense confrontation with the narratives and sites of the civil rights movement and African American history in our country. This was at the heart of why we wanted to take this trip. With issues of white supremacy and racial justice still at the forefront of our contemporary societal discourse, we felt it important to see for ourselves–and show our children–this history firsthand.
After a detour to Charlottesville and a stop to see family, we made it to Atlanta, and then on to Montgomery and Selma. Over these past few days we have visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the MLK National Historic Site, the King Center, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Civil Rights Memorial, the Dexter Avenue Church, the Atlanta State Capitol, the site of Rosa Parks’s bus stop, the Legacy Museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Route 80 between Montgomery and Selma, and the Edmund Pettis Bridge.
Each of these experiences was a new learning opportunity. Whether a museum or a historical site, we have walked away from these few days enriched with a deeper understanding of the history of our country.
Today in Montgomery we visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, joint projects both newly opened in the past few months. The Memorial is dedicated to the victims of lynching, a long overdue tribute to a horrific part of our history.
The Legacy Museum wove a powerful narrative of the African American experience in the US, beginning with slavery. Montgomery as we learned was a center of the slave trade–the museum is in a warehouse where slaves were kept and is located a few blocks from the slave auction site. (The Rosa Parks bus stop overlooks this site, now the location of a beautiful fountain.)
The narrative follows from slavery to lynching to Jim Crow laws to mass incarceration. The first three are the past, the last one is the present, all together making up one coherent narrative of institutionalized racism and inequality. Essentially, as one institution is dismantled, another arises to take its place. Institutionalized racism existed at the founding of our country and has persisted in different forms throughout the years, made possible by the attitude that African Americans are less than human. If you can chain a person once, it seems, you can chain them forever.
Because it was institutionalized, these acts of terror and racism were carried out either by the authorities or by others with (explicit or implicit) permission of the authorities. This was the fact that was perhaps both the most known and the most shocking to me to revisit. To know that only 1% of those who carried out lynchings were ever prosecuted, or that it was state troopers who beat people trying to register to vote, or local police who looked the other way when gangs came to harass lunch counter protesters, is to know that racism was built deep into the fabric of society.
At the memorial–a beautiful and evocative design–there is a prayer/dedication on the wall that reads in part: “For those abandoned by the rule of law.” This phrase perfectly captured this idea of institutionalized racism. It treats people not “above the law” but “below the law.” It excludes and treats a class of people as not worthy of full citizenship, of full participation in society.
And it persists today. The museum and the Memorial are projects of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, which addresses racial injustice and fights for racial equality in the criminal justice system. At the end of the Museum is a series of touch screens inviting the visitor to get involved on the issues and provides both national and local (by state) resources.
This is always a good place for a museum such as this to end. Confronted with the challenges of the past and the present, we can commit to remake the future.