Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.
We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.
It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it comes available, below.
There were several points on this trip through the American Southeast where we encountered some intense and uncomfortable knowledge about the human race, and the day we entered Alabama was definitely one of those days. In the nearly 40 years I lived in Florida, I never quite made it to the Heart of Dixie, because to me it was also ground zero for the civil rights movement, a long and often tragic resistance that we are still waging to this day. #BlackLivesMatter. Truth be told, I’ve always been a little bit scared of this particular state, along with Mississippi.
Alabama, after all, was the home of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, as well as the sit-ins in Birmingham in 1963 with their water hoses and dogs, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It’s also the place where protesters crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and where Governor George Wallace attempted to block school integration. This is a shameful legacy of racism, and as far as I’m concerned, when people think that irrationally, no one is safe.
That legacy becomes all the more tragic and ironic when you learn that the state’s official motto is “We Dare Defend Our Rights”, and it was adopted in 1939. Whose rights were you defending? And were you defending them with the water hoses and the dogs, and by blocking children’s entrance to schools? Well then, well done, you. Sigh.
For me, the Montgomery portion of the trip was intense and eye-opening and heartbreaking and, oddly, comforting. It was there that we visited the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I now consider this one of the best museums I have ever visited in my life, second only to the House of Terror in Budapest that I wrote about here. It was equally intense and edifying.
When we decided that Alabama would be on our itinerary, I said I had to go see the Lynching Museum. I thought that was what it was called. It took me some time to discover its real name. Both the museum and the memorial opened up in 2018, right in the midst of the Trump era. (I hope his head exploded as a result.) This garnered quite a lot of press. What stuck in my (extremely UNexploded) head was the phrase “Lynching Museum”.
If you ever get anywhere near Montgomery, I strongly urge you to visit these two places, and suggest that you visit the museum first. It will greatly enhance your visit to the memorial.
As I entered the 11,000 square foot museum, which was built upon the site of a former slave warehouse where Black people were locked up prior to sale, I felt a little sheepish. Did I even have a right to be here? Can I fully understand the deep sense of grief and the societal and cultural impact that slavery and mass incarceration has visited upon so many of my fellow Americans?
I was relieved that I was welcomed quite warmly, and at no time was I made to feel that I was an unwanted intruder. In fact, I’m one of the very people who needs this museum most, because I soon discovered I had a lot to learn. It’s so easy for me to sit in my safe White bubble and pretend that certain horrors were not as bad as they actually were, simply because I didn’t experience them firsthand. This museum bursts that bubble.
When you pass through its doors, you take a journey from transatlantic slavery to the domestic slave trade to the terrorism and lynching that followed Emancipation and included voter suppression and segregation. You learn more than you previously knew about White Supremacy and Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights Movement. And most of all, you learn how this legacy of slavery lives on in the form of mass incarceration. It’s a lot to take in. But it’s worth it.
The first room was very powerful. It was narrow, but with a cathedral ceiling, and on every wall was projected footage of huge, crashing waves, far above your head. You could also hear the waves through the sound system. And you are told how many people, kidnapped from their homes by the transatlantic slavery system, did not even make it across the Atlantic alive. That ocean is a massive grave. That room really brings home what it must have felt like to die that way. I’ll never look at the Atlantic the same again.
Then you enter a hallway with sculptures of just the heads of slaves as they were coming ashore in America. Some have collars on. Some have bandages. Some are children. And all you see is the fear and the agony on their faces. At this point I knew I wouldn’t escape this museum without crying.
This is very much a narrative museum. You’re not only presented with facts and numbers. You hear stories. At one point you enter the slave warehouse that used to stand on this very spot. In each cell, you see the ghosts of the people imprisoned here, and as you approach the bars, you hear them tell their stories. The one that stuck with me the most was that of a little girl. All she does is look you square in the eye and say, “Do you know where my mother is?”
That ripped my heart right out of my chest. Seriously. My heart is probably still there, lying in a bloody heap at the feet of that poor child.
In another room you are presented with quotes from slaves. And then runaway notices and auctions. And then the horror of the domestic slave trade.
Once the transatlantic trade ceased, slavery still lived on in this country. You just had to, if you’ll pardon the expression, “buy local”. This meant that families were ripped apart. (There is a reason why “sold down the river” is a term that means the ultimate form of betrayal.) Parents often never saw their children again. Women were forcibly raped and/or bred like horses, so that their children could then be sold off.
And after the civil war and emancipation, you didn’t think these slave owners would quietly give up the concept of free labor, did you? Sharecropping was another form of slavery. It made it impossible to break out of a cycle of poverty. And when people started to agitate for rights and got no support to speak of from the federal government, the former slave owners and those who supported them turned to domestic terrorism to maintain control. Thousands fled from the south. And of the ones that remained, more than 4000 of them were lynched between 1877 and 1950.
Lynching is an effective and brutal tool designed to terrorize the populace and keep them in their “place.” Lynching was often a source of entertainment for Whites. Sometimes thousands gathered to watch the spectacle. They sold popcorn and postcards at these events. They tortured before they killed. Sometimes, if they couldn’t find the man they were looking for to lynch, they’d settle upon the next Black man they came across.
And the reasons for these lynchings were sickening (if there was even any attempt to pretend a reason was needed.) No one was safe. No one. You could be lynched for berating a White child for throwing rocks at you. You could be lynched for testifying against a White person. You could be lynched for raping a White woman, even if there was no evidence or truth to it. You could be lynched for asking for water.
One room in the museum has a wall of glass jars. In these jars is a variety of different colored sand and soil. When you discover that these jars of dirt were collected from sites of documented lynchings (and there were probably just as many undocumented ones), you feel sick. It’s like ashes when no ashes are available. Each jar includes the victim’s name, date of death, and location. That’s all that’s left of them, as burials were not usually permitted.
Other rooms describe the civil rights movement, and bring you up to the present day. They demonstrate how politicians gave overblown descriptions of the national drug problem in an effort to win elections through the politics of fear. Many of them later admitted to blatantly lying. The museum describes how the prison population has swelled because of this “war on drugs”, and that we imprison a higher percentage of our population than any other nation, and the vast majority of those prisoners are black.
Why? Cheap labor. Slavery by another name. Every Idaho potato you eat, for example, was processed by prisoners who get paid pennies an hour.
Another moving narrative piece brings you face to face with the projection of prisoners sitting behind a glass wall, with phones, and if you sit and face them and pick up your phone as if you’re visiting them, they will look right at you and tell you their stories.
They talk of rape by prison guards. Overcrowding. Being incarcerated for decades before being released because they weren’t guilty. Children locked up. Solitary confinement. Mandatory minimum laws which can lock you up for life for non-violent crimes.
This museum left me with so much to think about. I had to sit with it for a long time. I’m still sitting with it, if I’m honest. I think I left there a different person.
The only disappointing thing about this museum is that they don’t allow photographs. I plan to contact them and urge them to rethink that stance. I know that museums used to have that policy the world over, but that’s no longer the case in most, because there’s no danger of damaging the artifacts with flash photography anymore when people generally use their phones to take pictures.
Even the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, which I’ll also be blogging about soon, and the Getty Center in Los Angeles, which I’ve already blogged about, allow photographs. Atrocities must be remembered in order to prevent them from happening again, and works of art in galleries must be shared so that we don’t forget there is still beauty and creativity in this complicated world of ours.
The Equal Justice Initiative website states that they don’t allow photographs “in order to preserve the sacredness of the space and the integrity of each visitor’s experience.”
I get that. I really do. It is a sacred space. The subject matter is solemn. It is deserving of the utmost respect. But I believe this horrifying legacy needs to be shouted from the rooftops. It needs to have the brightest of lights shined upon it so that we can fight the evils of mass incarceration that are still going on to this very day. In this world of social media, that means pictures. At the very, very least, I hope they will consider doing a social media wall with a constantly changing digital display that people can photograph and share with the wider world. At least do that. But this museum deserves even more. And the more people talk and share, the more people will come to visit and learn. Photos won’t decrease your ticket sales. They’ll increase them, right along with your outreach and publicity.
In the absence of pictures, I bought some of their books, and here are some photos of some of the pages, as well as photos we took of the exterior. After you have viewed them, scroll down to hear about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
After leaving the museum with my head full of so much horrifying truth, we headed over to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This memorial is comprised of 6 acres, and photos are allowed there. It feels even more sacred than the museum did. It is a place where you speak in hushed tones. It is one of the most important places I have ever been.
Upon entering, you are confronted with a very emotional sculpture by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo that shows the raw terror, pain and agony of slavery.
Then you slowly climb the hill and approach what looks like 800 hanging rusty metal coffins, each one representing someone who had been lynched. You are overwhelmed with the sheer number of them. So many dead. But as you get closer, you realize that each “coffin” does not represent one person lynched. No. It represents each county where there was a documented lynching, and some of them have so many names they had to reduce the font to accommodate them. That overwhelming visual number is multiplied over and over and over again by the names. It made me feel sick to my stomach.
Coffins at eye level. Coffins hanging above me. Hanging high and low. County after county. State after state. Victim after victim. Hanging.
After that, if you aren’t completely destroyed by your own tears, you walk the grounds and see a sculpture by Dana King that honors the women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and then a sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas that dramatizes police violence and racial bias. We still have such a long way to go.
So why do I say the museum and memorial were comforting, as well as being intense and eye-opening and heartbreaking? Because if these important truths can be brought back to the very heart of Montgomery, Alabama, in the midst of the Trump era, then there is hope for us, and hope for reality and truth and change. It means we are capable of learning and improving and recovering from injustice. It means we can stand up against lies and hatred in beautiful, memorable, emotionally fraught and edifying ways.
As much as I’ve trashed Alabama in this post, don’t get me wrong. Alabama is a beautiful state. I wasn’t expecting that, because, frankly, I’ve always been focused on my fear of it. Its highways certainly have less of a police presence than Georgia’s do. DH and I had a wonderful time visiting his father and stepmother in the pretty, historic town of Andalusia. We had delicious food that brought me right back to that Southern part of me that I just can’t deny. Yes, it’s true that nothing says Southern small town more than the cigarette burns we saw on our motel bathtub, but Alabama can’t really be blamed for that. Overall, the trip was either pleasant or enlightening or both, and because of that, I will never forget it, and I’m relieved to say I no longer fear Alabama. It is taught me much.
I’ll leave you with these words, which grace one of the walls of the memorial:
“For the hanged and beaten, for the shot, drowned, and burned. For the tortured, tormented, and terrorized. For those abandoned by the rule of law. We will remember. With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice. With courage because peace requires bravery. With persistence because justice is a constant struggle. With faith because we shall overcome.”
I’m not even going to try to hawk my book here as I usually do. Sometimes blatant profiteering just feels wrong.