How I Found Montgomery- or How Montgomery Found Me
I had the great privilege of traveling to Montgomery, AL this past weekend with Tina Strawn who facilitates Legacy Trips - three day anti-racism trips which remind us, and often teach us for the first time, the realities of racism, violence, and segregation that are not only an integral part of the founding of this country, but continue to be the foundation by which specific members of our society are marginalized and oppressed. We gathered in the seat of the confederacy that shares a history not only of violence and subjugation, but also one of uprising, resistance, and hope.
I arrived a day early and filled my first day with a visit to the Rosa Parks Museum, the Dexter St. Church parsonage where Rev./Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lived with his young family as Pastor of the Dexter St. Baptist Church and where so much of the Civil Rights movement was birthed, and finished with a visit to the church itself where we received an inspiring tour and felt the energy of resistance and deep faith in change that lives in the pews and carpets of this church. I was struck by how this entire town feels like a memorial. The streets are largely vacant, with very few cars and businesses, and there is a hush that you often feel when you enter the doors of a church. This city is the capital of Alabama, it is the primary city in an entire state in our union, but it feels like a ghost town.
When I joined my group that evening, I felt out of place. I am so accustomed to being with other white women who are largely blind to their racism. This group was comprised of women who had made a conscious decision to sit with our whiteness and face the violence of our silence. Because this space was so beautifully curated by Tina and uplifted by Tanzy and Kina (all incredible Black women) and Saira (a non-white revolutionary) I knew we would be held to a loving and firm standard of respect, honesty, and unmitigated truth through the weekend. Each time we gathered, whether it was for breakfast or travel, we were urged to be mindful, to make sure our conversation was focused and relevant to the intentions of the weekend. This weekend was the same weekend that we saw horrific attacks perpetrated on Israeli citizens by Hamas
and one of our facilitators was visibly rocked by these actions as she identifies as a woman of Jewish faith. I can not imagine the strength it took for her to be present with us as she was grieving the devastation that we were watching unfold praying for empathy and compassion on all Israeli and Palestinian civilians whose lives would continue to be destroyed by violence. I am grateful to Pleasance for her grace throughout the weekend in the face of unmitigated sorrow.
Saturday was a very full day. I was unsure of what I would experience at the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace & Justice, but I was ready to find out. My intention for the weekend was to be open to what I didn't know. I offered to drive to the museum in case anyone wanted a ride but wished I was able to walk with the others as I was in the car alone. It was a beautiful cool day, which was unexpected for Alabama, and the sky could not have been more blue. When I was waiting for the walkers to arrive, I was very conscious of not taking up space. There was a water feature near the parking lot and I wanted to take pictures to remember the space, but I hesitated because it felt intrusive. The others arrived and we got our wristbands to enter as a group. Somehow I ended up on the wrong side of the line and already felt stupid for being in the wrong place. My sense of "taking up space" was in full bloom, and I welcomed the dark corridor that lead us into the first exhibit.
Rounding the corner, I came into a darkened theater with a large screen on the opposite wall. A visual of waves rolling and smashing up against something was on the screen and the sound of the ocean was ringing in my ears from every speaker. There were words scrolling on the screen telling the story of tens of thousands (possibly millions) of souls perishing during the middle passage in the hulls of ships- their bodies thrown overboard to their eternal graves in the ocean depths. I think this is where the anxiety and rage began to rise in my throat. The sound of the ocean has always been akin to nails on a chalkboard in the way it resonates in my body. I stood staring at this screen and remembered my walk through the "door of no return" at Cape Coast Slave Castle in Ghana in 2018. It felt like a weird full circle moment as I imagined the unparalleled fear those men, women, and children must have felt moving through that door to a ship with no idea of what awaited them. The power of the waves on the screen coupled with the sound of the water surrounded me and brought to my heart a whisper of the horror they must have felt.
I moved into the next space where short films illustrating the volumes of kidnapped humans who were brought to the Americas and the Caribbean were showing on each side of the room. I felt obsessed with finding Charleston, NC, and Connecticut to further my understanding of the role they played in the transatlantic slave trade. I knew much of these data already, but as my rage grew I started to lose myself in the reality that my ancestors perpetuated and participated in these horrors.
At first I thought it was simply a manifestation of my white guilt- and that is most certainly part of it. But looking deeper, I felt my molecules in my body that shared DNA with the criminals who did these despicable things start to vibrate. I have spent considerable time building my family tree on Ancestry and I actually know the names of my ancestors who committed these crimes against humanity. Suddenly, it wasn't just a historical fact that I was learning about in a class (even though I never really learned the depth of this chapter in our nation's' history in school)- there wasn't the removal one might feel from sitting in a lecture listening to an account of some period of time in the past- it was being told to me through print, media, sound, and vibrations that congealed with the knowledge of the names of my ancestors who actually did these horrors and I was overcome.
I lived over 20 years in Charleston, SC- the cradle of slavery in this country. I've had the privilege of knowing some of the most skilled storytellers, Black and white, who recount the real stories of the slave trade in such a way that it feels like you might be there. While there are many details I don't claim to know, I felt like I had a better understanding than many of what the overall story of chattel slavery was and imagined there wasn't much that would be new to me in this exhibit. What I didn't anticipate is the knowing coming from my bones instead of my head. This museum curates this story in such a complete sensorial way that my thinking was almost shut down and my feeling took over.
I didn't make it through the whole museum. I hit a wall and had to find the sun. My body temperature had dropped and I felt like I had been in a deep freezer for longer than I could tolerate. I made my way outside and ran to the sun, allowing it to warm my depths again as the cool breeze blew. We ate lunch together, sharing how we had been affected by what we saw. All I could articulate was rage. I wanted to hold my ancestors accountable; I wanted to not let them off the hook for their crimes. I felt like I wasn't making a lot of sense and I deeply appreciate my table-mates listening and offering love as I grappled with my wave of feelings. We had the option to return to the museum later after our visit to the National Memorial for Peace & Justice, but I wasn't sure I had it in me. We will see what the afternoon brings. There were those who welcomed a ride with me to the Memorial, so we got in our car and headed out.
The memorial was entirely outside, and I was grateful for the sunshine and warmth that I knew I needed. We were reminded by our facilitator to be respectful, mindful, and intentional about how we moved through this space. This was not the place for loud talking or laughing about anything - this was hallowed ground honoring the 4000 Black men, women and children who had been lynched in the south between the years of 1877 and 1950. Bryan Stevenson is the curator of this memorial and the museum, and his vision of how to best honor those lost while amplifying the truth of the horrors has created a sacred space. As you enter, you are invited to be very clear about what the experience of enslaved persons was through life-sized bronze statues depicting six men and women who are clearly being kept in bondage. Their facial expressions reflect pain and horror unimaginable- except that you can see it very clearly through this work. Further down the path, you rise up a hill to the beginning of the towers (I'll call them). Each tower represents a county in a certain state with the names and dates of the victims of lynching in that county. If the name is unknown, that is reflected on the tower. As I moved through the towers, I found myself obsessed again with finding the counties where I have lived and where my known ancestors lived who might have participated in or attended those lynchings. I'm unsure why I felt so compelled to find them- it's almost as if I wanted to say, "SEE... SEE... You DID do it, I KNEW IT!" The relatives I knew who were alive and thriving during this horrible time lived in such privilege that I imagine they were able to carry out their atrocities in the cover of darkness or status that kept them removed from the reality of their shame. I wanted to honor the names of those who lost their lives at my DNA's hands- even though I don't have the direct link to connect any of my people to these crimes. My great grandfather was the Grand Dragon of the KKK in NC in the early 1900's. I googled what county his city of Wilson was located in and was determined to find that marker. When I did, there were two lynchings accounted for - someone unknown in 1887 and J.C. Farmer in 1946. He resigned from the Klan in 1927, but that doesn't mean he didn't have a hand in other crimes unaccounted in this space.
The towers begin sitting at ground level, and as you move around the enormous exhibit, they slowly rise in height until they are so high above your head, you have to strain to read the words. At one point, I found myself rubbing my neck because it was growing tired from looking up- and then I realized the further brilliance of this exhibit. At every turn, your body feels the realness of the information you are gathering. It's more than just reading the facts from a book. By the time I got to the end of the towers, they were hanging fully above my head. I kept thinking that although 4000 is an enormous number, those are just the ones we know about! How many more souls were lost whose names we will never know?
Sunday we traveled to Selma, AL to walk across the bridge named for a Klan leader in remembrance of the men and women who were brutalized by police as they came across that same bridge trying to march from Selma to Montgomery (a distance that takes 45 min by car today) to protest the lack of access to voting for Black people in Alabama and other parts of the south in 1965. Walking over the crest of the bridge and seeing the familiar dirt median between the highway that we've seen on grainy film of that attack by police on foot and horseback, I could only imagine the courage it took to stand for what they believed in the face of such unabashed cruelty and hate. I have been looking within to myself since that experience to summon the same resolve these freedom fighters found; asking myself if I would have been one of the white people who came to Selma to stand in solidarity and risk my life for what is right? I'd like to say I would, but who are we kidding, I don't really know.
The purpose of this weekend is to not only remind or teach us about the horrors of enslavement and the Jim Crow era and how these oppressions are still operating in full view despite time passed, but to inspire us to identify how we can become soldiers in the fight for justice. At the end of the Peace & Justice Memorial there are replicas of markers identifying the cities and spaces that have dedicated a historical marker in their town reflecting the story and name of one or more of the lynching victims that were killed there. I was pleased to see so many that have intentionally remembered and honored those who were killed in their county or town and told their story. It's not justice for the crimes, but it does give an opportunity for those people lost to be known to future generations and for the townspeople to own their history's role in this horror. We know that history untold is doomed to repeat. These markers represent hope that these atrocities will not be visited upon anyone again- but we must be vigilant.
I deeply appreciate now having a community of folks who are dedicated to the justice work required to shift our participation in today's version of slavery and oppression and I HIGHLY recommend Legacy Trips to open your understanding of the depths of this country's original sins and how we still have so much work to do to dismantle the white supremacy that surrounds each of us.
"None of us is free until ALL of us are free". ~ Fannie Lou Hamer