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Can We Ever Get Beyond Our Legacy of American Racial Terrorism?

A museum and memorial in a onetime Confederate capital preserve the memories of slavery, lynching and Jim Crow. Yet too much of that past is still around us.

"Raise Up" sculpture
“Raise Up,” a sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas on the grounds of the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. It suggests police suspects lined up at gunpoint. (Photo: Jabari Simama)
My wife and I recently returned from a convening of educators by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Ala. Part of the convening included tours of its Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. These history and cultural centers preserve the memories of slavery, racism and lynching in America.

As we walked through the museum, we were transfixed by an exhibit that transported us back to the Middle Passage, in which over three centuries more than 12 million Africans were kidnapped and brought to the New World on slave ships under the most inhumane conditions. Two million never made it, according to the museum’s descriptors. Looking down at a replica of the Atlantic Ocean, we heard water rushing, cries of anguish and moans, and saw bones and skeletons. My wife broke down and cried. I held her hand firmly as she warned that she might not be able to make it through the exhibits.

As deeply emotional as the museum and memorial were, I was astounded to realize how the deeply scarred onetime Confederate capital of Montgomery, best known for the Montgomery bus boycott, could profit from tourism associated with its racist past. After all, this is the city that celebrates the state holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day as the holiday for Robert E. Lee. Even more, the state maintains more than 150 Confederate monuments, according the Southern Poverty Law Center.

I don’t believe that EJI’s staff had tourism in mind when they built the memorials to slavery and lynching, but they have developed one of the nation’s most successful and important legal defense, history and cultural organizations. I surmise that EJI’s programs and facilities have stabilized parts of the town where they are located and have been a boon to the city’s overall economy. With annual revenue of more than $200 million and assets of nearly $300 million, EJI’s financial success plays a vital role in the city’s fiscal health: The city is expecting revenue of about $393 million this fiscal year, so spending by those visiting the museums will comprise a significant part of this total.

What stuck with me most, though, was how much land EJI, which was founded in 1989 by civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, had accumulated and developed near downtown. Its historic buildings, once used as slave exchanges, are impeccably restored. The constant traffic of visitors walking back and forth from hotels contributes to a sense of safety. The nearby restaurants are bustling with customers, and many of the waiters had stories to tell us about the museum. I’m not sure if they are aware of EJI’s pivotal work defending death-row inmates; one scheduled execution that EJI opposed was granted a stay the night we arrived.

After spending three hours at the museum, my wife and I rode a shuttle bus to the lynching memorial about a mile away. The memorial, encompassing several acres, consists mostly of rusted six-foot metal coffins with names of lynched victims etched into them. They are arranged by states and counties, and I immediately found the Georgia counties where I’ve spent most of my adult life, Fulton and DeKalb. I also searched for and found the names of victims who had been lynched in Boone County, Mo., where I was born.

On the way back to our hotel, my wife and I spoke briefly with a white teacher who had made the trip from Cleveland. She shared that she couldn’t stop crying after experiencing the exhibits at the museum. It shocked her, she said, that she reacted in the manner that she did because she often teaches about the Holocaust. “As sad as that act of inhumanity was to man, these exhibits affected me even more,” she said.

I am glad I attended the convening and delighted that I saw the exhibits both at the museum and memorial. But I am still unsettled about how much I surmise Montgomery is benefiting from EJI’s presence in the city. It raises important questions for me. What is the city doing to improve the lives of its residents who are descended from slaves and were victims of its bitter Jim Crow system? Why won’t the state remove the 156 Confederate monuments? Why is it still celebrating Robert E. Lee Day? And will museum- and memorial-related revenues from tourism be plowed back into Montgomery’s African American communities?

These are questions I have for Alabama, but they are similar to ones that must be answered by other states that protect racist monuments and support voter-suppression laws. Public officials in states including Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia that harbor even more Confederate monuments than Alabama need to be accountable to all of their residents. These are questions for the 42 states where since January 2021 bills have been introduced or other steps have been taken to limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in their classrooms. These are questions for those who babble against “wokeism” but would not welcome a legacy museum or memorial dedicated to enslaved Africans or victims of lynching and other forms of American terrorism.

The convening ended on a Friday, and as we drove back to Atlanta my mind was full of images, ideas and thoughts of what I had just experienced, including election officials in the Jim Crow South asking African Americans trying to register to vote a series of ridiculous questions like “How many jellybeans are in a large jar?” or “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” or “How many seeds are in a watermelon?” I thought of the link between those past practices and those of today, such as Georgia’s attempt to forbid early voting on a Saturday before a runoff election.

As we pulled into our driveway, I recalled a conversation I had a day before with Keslie Spottsville, a board member of the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City. She told me about the vandalism of a marker that was placed last year at the crime scene of the last known Black man to have been lynched in my hometown of Columbia, Mo. James T. Scott was lynched in 1923, and soil from the spot where the crime occurred is permanently on display at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. Sadly, the Missouri memorial to Scott, installed in April 2021, lasted only one week before it was destroyed by vandals. This is why we still need an Equal Justice Initiative.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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