I almost don’t know how to put into words my thoughts surrounding my visit to Montgomery and to Selma, AL to walk in the footsteps of my Civil Rights heroes.
Their bravery, and the sacrifices of thousands of others, led to a far more inclusive and representative Democracy for millions of people in this country. That Democracy is under great threat today from those that are seeking to diminish voting rights and to continue to promote white supremacy.
I’ll start a little bit out of order with my visit to the famous Civil Rights sites in Selma, Alabama, primarily the Edmund Pettia Bridge.
Selma, was the site of the first unsuccessful “Bloody Sunday” march in March, 1965 starting in Selma, AL with the intention of peacefully marching to the capitol in Montgomery, AL. The non-violent protestors were nearly beaten to death by Sheriff Clark and his horseback-mounted thugs on that day.
The demonstrators—led by civil rights activists John Lewis (a personal hero of mine) of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—were commemorating the recent fatal shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old church deacon, by state trooper James Bonard Fowler. The group planned to march the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital.
Just as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, they were ordered to disperse. Moments later, police assaulted them with tear gas, bullwhips and billy clubs. Lewis, then 25, was one of 17 marchers hospitalized; dozens more were treated for injuries.
Weeks later, the second Selma to Montgomery march led by Dr King actually succeeded. That march and the violence meted out to Lewis and others raised the consciousness of the country toward the pernicious voter suppression happening in the South. It also led directly to the 1965 Voting Rights Acts signed by President Johnson into law.
It’s worth noting that Edmund Pettus (may HIS name be erased), was a Grand Dragon of the Alabama KKK and for whom, today, the bridge is named. He was an unrepentant racist to his dying day and not worthy of the honor, if you ask me. It would be far more appropriate, I believe, to rename this infamous bridge in Congressman John Lewis’s memory. However, I would not hold your breath, since this is still Alabama, after all 🙄.
Secondly, I’ll take a step back and reflect on yesterday’s incredibly moving visit to Montgomery’s Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum and National Memorial to victims of Lynching across town. If you happen to find yourself in Montgomery, I HIGHLY recommend a visit to these sites! Watch this short video for an introduction the the work being done at the Museum.
I don’t have any pictures from inside the museum (photos were prohibited) but the impact was absolutely stunning! What I do have are some screen grabs from the museum website. Only by coming to grips with the noxious impact that slavery, Jim Crow and White Supremacy have had on our country, can we build a world that tends more toward justice.
I remarked to some people that the Museum and Memorial were very much reminiscent and equally as powerful as Yad V’Shem in Jerusalem (a memorial to the 6 million victims of the Shoah) and the US Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC.
I’ve become particularly sensitive to issues affecting the Black community and those other communities of color, since last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Honestly, I have a very hard time understanding the cruelty and evil meted out by many in this country in the name of preserving and promoting slavery. Many of the same people that we honor as our Founding Fathers, were also deeply involved with slavery. So, their hands are certainly not clean in this respect.
- The minute you walk into the museum, you are a confronted with a large video screen showing huge ocean waves on which you can imagine 15 million African-Americans kidnapped, raped, beaten, and tortured before being crowded onto boats and sent to the colonies in the Americas as slave laborers during the horrendous “Middle Passage.”
Hundreds of thousands died en-route and their bodies were thrown overboard never to be seen again.
- Next you pass through a sculpture which depicts the heads and tortured bodies of thousands of African Americans that were afflicted by slavery. The sculpture reminded me of the piles of shoes and suitcases and other memorabilia that you see in places like Auschwitz and Yad V’Shem and another Holocaust memorials around the world.
- Particularly damning is another exhibit which talks about the way that both Northerners and Southerners were equally complicit in promoting slavery in this country. For example, Wall Street and Broadway in New York City were built by slave labor. And Boston, was a major center in the slave trade with hundreds of ships going back and forth from Boston Harbor to Africa to take millions of African-Americans into slavery in this country. It’s not a comfortable notion at all and goes against the widely held notion that slavery was only a “Southern” thing.
In fact, in 1808, the International Slave Trade was outlawed, de jure, in this country. However, the laws were routinely ignored. Between 1808 and the end of the Civil War, millions of African Americans were shipped to this country to support the South agrarian economy, and hundreds of thousands more were kidnapped and taken from the North to the South to support the slave economy that existed in the US at that time.
- One horrendous exhibit documented hundreds of newspaper articles which talked about the way that slave traders in this country bought and sold people like animals and described their “property” in those terms.
- Another exhibit talked about the heartbreaking post- Civil War letters published in African-American newspapers seeking to reunite themselves with their families. One of the most terrible legacies of Slavery was the routine practice of tearing slave families apart at the whim of the slave owners.
- Another exhibit portrayed slave pens, common in places that bought and sold slaves, where holographic images of slaves told their bitter and heartbreaking stories.
The viewer was literally forced to “lean in” against the jail cell doors, to see and hear the stories of these people. The stories were gut-wrenching and raw and horrifying, and if anything, gave a visceral sense of the horrible mistreatment and agony these people felt as they were kidnapped, tortured, and had their families ripped apart. It was almost more than I could bear.
The second half of the museum concentrated on issues of White Supremacy the attempts to disenfranchise Black voters and people of color, and the continued pernicious effect of White Supremacy in this country to this day.
- I was horrified by one exhibit of dozens of politicians and Klan leaders in the South, like George Wallace, espousing their vicious hatred and White-supremacist views.
- Another exhibit chronicled both positive and negative Supreme Court cases that affected voting and civil rights in this country for millions of people of color.
- One exhibit had hundreds of mason jars full of soil with the names of victims of lynchings across the United States. Lynching was an all-too-common tactic used by evil racists to terrify blacks in the post-emancipation South during and after Reconstruction, starting in the1860s, and continuing well into the mid-1960s across this country.
Volunteers were sent out with mason jars across the country to collect soil from these lynching sites and to display them in the museum as a memorial to the evil of lynching. You’re confronted with a huge wall of these mason jars with the names of the victims embossed on them.
The only reaction that I had really was to stand there and tearily and silently recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.
National Memorial for Lynching
After almost 4 hours of walking through the Museum, I drove over to the EJI’s National Memorial for Lynching which left me speechless and almost without words.
How do you make sense of a place like this? It’s a stunning Memorial across town, on a hill overlooking downtown Montgomery.
I can’t help but think that the placement was very deliberate because Montgomery, which was the seat of power of the Confederacy. The Confederacy had its fingerprints are all over the legacy of racial segregation, Jim Crow and the horrendous treatment of African-Americans in this country to this day
What makes this place even more stunning is the fact that lynching was racial terror perpetrated by Americans, on Americans for the purpose of enshrining white supremacy as the ethos of this country.
It gives one food for thought particularly today when many of the same racist and supremacist tendencies are being fostered and promoted by some in our political leadership.
In my opinion, I believe that Brian Stevenson and the EJI deserves something akin to the Nobel Prize for naming and shaming white racism in this country in the past and even today, and working to bring about healing and reconciliation in the future. If you want to have a greater sense of his power, take a look at this video of his conversation with Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles on Yom Kippur, in 2020.
Entering the memorial, you’re confronted with hundreds of metallic pylons many which are suspended tens of feet above you in the ceiling. They seem to go on forever, with the victims’ names and locations of lynchings that took place in the United States over the decades.
The symbolism represents the bodies of people hanging from trees and bridges during this awful period in our history.
Fables like the “Lost Cause” which promote “Southern Heritage “and not racism, as the key lesson to be learned from the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War.
The Horror of Stone Mountain, near Atlanta
If you have any doubt that the Lost Cause is alive and well today, all you need to do is go and visit Atlanta’s horrific Stone Mountain Park, which I only recently learned was constructed and promoted by supporters of the KKK. So evil I perceive them to be, I am not linking to their website deliberately because I don’t want to promote them in any way. You can Google them if you wish.
I once visited Stone Mountain when my nieces were young children. (To my later shame. I wish I could take back every cent of the admissions fees I paid that day.)
At the time I remember remarking that Stone Mountain came across to me as a theme-park, akin to Disney’s “Country Bear Jamboree” meets the “Gone With The Wind.” Totally missing in that modern retelling was that Stone Mountain originated as a site promoting the Lost Cause, and was the site of huge Klan rallies that took place in the for nearly 50 years. These rallies and the origin story were completely airbrushed out of the current telling of the story of the site. It’s simply revolting.
During the first of the January 6th public hearings,Chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) called out the link between political extremism in the U.S. and social control, both of which are about a small group of people dominating others, a minority imposing their worldview on a majority. “I’m from a part of the country where people justified the actions of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and lynching,” Thompson said. “I’m reminded of that dark history as I hear voices today try to justify the actions of the insurrectionists on January 6, 2021.”