I was raised to treat all people with kindness. But strict laws and social codes kept the races apart, and the lie of “separate but equal” prevailed throughout the country. My family did not socialize with people of color, and my parents worried when my high school was forced to integrate in 1970.
Racism Is Woven Into Our Culture
It is in my nature to question and challenge the status quo, and I was fortunate to grow up in a time of tremendous social change that helped to shape my egalitarian views. But the hard truth is that no matter how aware we are, and how much work we have done to understand and overcome prejudice, we are all subject to racial bias. Racism is woven into the fabric of our society and our culture. And it is both overt and subtle.
There is no better place to reflect on the history of racism, and how it continues to affect us, than by visiting Montgomery, Alabama. From the birth of the Confederacy to the birth of the civil rights movement, Montgomery has played a central role in our nation’s painful struggle to accept that all people are created equal, and that all people, regardless of color, deserve to be treated equally. We spent three days in Montgomery, and I’m still absorbing and processing all that we experienced.
The Alabama State Capitol Building
The Alabama State Capitol sits high on a hill overlooking downtown Montgomery. On the capitol grounds is the most elaborate Confederate monument we’ve seen in our travels. In a time when Confederate monuments are being removed across the country, the Alabama legislature passed a bill in 2017 establishing stringent protections for their monuments. The governor’s official stance is that the state needs to preserve history, “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” so that the past can be understood and learned from.
It is a topic of contention in the state. As is Confederate Memorial Day, which Alabama celebrates as a state holiday in late April every year.
The capitol building has been meticulously restored. The senate chamber appears just as it did in 1861, when Southern delegates met here to organize the Confederate States of America.
At the entrance to the capitol stands a bronze statue of Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. Here, beneath the portico, Davis was inaugurated, and when he died, he lay in state in the capitol. So did George Wallace, the infamous segregationist Governor of Alabama, who proclaimed in his inaugural speech in 1963: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
In the midst of this extravaganza of memorials to the Confederacy, we were heartened to discover that the most recent dignitary to lie in state in the Alabama capitol was civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis. A native son of Alabama, Lewis dedicated his life to protecting human rights and was a courageous activist and freedom fighter for more than 60 years.
Despite being beaten and jailed numerous times for his civil rights activism, Lewis espoused love and non-violent protest. And he also advocated for speaking up, for righting wrongs, and for getting into “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Many people believe that the Civil War was about the moral issue of slavery. Others adamantly maintain that it was primarily about state’s rights. But the clear losers in either interpretation were the Blacks, who were not recognized as equals in either the North or the South, either before or after the war.
Walking In The Footsteps Of Civil Rights Leaders
Montgomery was the volatile scene of two incidents that laid the foundation for the civil rights movement. First was the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December, 1955, when Rosa Parks (a seamstress and NAACP activist) was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man.
Overnight, the Black community rallied under the leadership of a charismatic 26-year-old pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr. They initiated a boycott of Montgomery buses that lasted for 13 months, ending in a court decision that ruled in favor of the protestors. Not only was this event the earliest mass protest for civil rights in this country, but it shone the national spotlight on Rev. King. His commitment to nonviolent resistance was a defining philosophy of the civil rights movement through the 1960s.
The People’s Fight For Voting Rights Started Here
One hundred years after Black Americans were granted the right to vote, that right had been incrementally taken away through a variety of measures, including literacy tests with obscure policy questions that virtually no one could answer, and ridiculous tasks like guessing the number of seeds in a watermelon. Coupled with blatant intimidation, it was all but impossible for Black people to vote.
In March 1965, a series of marches from Selma to Montgomery took place in an effort to bring light to the struggle for voting rights. The first march ended at the Edmund-Pettus bridge, when Alabama state and local police viciously attacked the unarmed protestors. John Lewis, one of the leaders, was beaten so badly that he was hospitalized with a fractured skull.
A Hard-Won Battle, Simply To Peacefully March
The brutal scene was broadcast on television. Many Americans were outraged, and civil rights and religious leaders traveled to Selma to join the protest. On March 25, 1965, on their third attempt, the protestors successfully walked the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery. This time, they were protected by the federalized National Guard under the direct order of President Lyndon Johnson, who was angered by Gov. Wallace’s refusal to provide the marchers with safe passage.
The march ended at the steps of the capitol, where Gov. Wallace refused to accept their petition. Here, King made one of his greatest speeches to an estimated 25,000 people, encouraging them to not give up hope.
“I know some of you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long…because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
We walked the city block from Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church to the steps of the capitol, reflecting on the courage of Rev. King, John Lewis, and all of those who marched in support of voting rights. It is unthinkable that those hard-won rights are being threatened today.
The Alabama State Museum
Just across the street from the capitol is the Alabama Department of Archives and History, which contains the nicely crafted Museum of Alabama.
We were surprised to learn that at one time, Alabama was one of the wealthiest states in the Union, all because of cotton. Of course, this was made possible solely by the backbreaking labor of the enslaved people. By 1860, almost half of Alabama’s residents were African-American, and most were enslaved.
The Civil War was ruinous for Alabama. When the slaves were freed, the economy collapsed and lawlessness was rampant. One hundred-and-fifty years later, the state consistently ranks as one of the poorest in the nation.
The Legacy Museum
It is fitting that the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice were built in Montgomery. In this city, where dozens of monuments pay tribute to the Confederacy, the museum and the memorial offer a poignant and powerful truth-telling of some of the darkest aspects of our history.
There are no photos allowed in the museum, and I do not have the words to adequately describe the experience. This was the first time we’ve been in a crowd since the beginning of the pandemic, and we were grateful that masks were required. We slowly walked through the beautifully designed museum, carried along in a sea of others who were quietly immersed in the journey.
Through art, film, and interactive media, the story of Black people in America unfolds. Most of us know the framework of this story…the kidnapping of Black people from Africa. The era of slavery. The Civil War and the freeing of enslaved people. The decades of segregation. Civil rights marches and victories.
The Distorted Lens Of Cultural Bias
But the story, as most of us know it, has been told through the lens of our cultural bias. It is a narrative that tells us that, for the most part, plantation owners were kind to those they enslaved. It is a narrative that tells us that Black people now have equal rights and opportunities, and that if they are struggling, they just need to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” It is a narrative that tells us that people of color are more violent. It is a narrative that nurtures fear and distrust.
Most of all, it is a narrative, rooted in the birth of our nation, that tells us that white people are more evolved, and that white people are superior to people of color. This narrative provided the justification for wresting land from indigenous peoples, for enslaving thousands of Black people and treating them like animals, for the creation of Jim Crow laws, for the violent practice of lynching, for the denial of voting rights, for the prohibition of interracial marriage, and now, for the enormous disparity in the way that people of color are treated in our criminal justice system.
Instead of simply presenting a timeline of historical facts and artifacts, visitors to the museum are inexorably drawn into reflecting on their personal beliefs and the way they view the world.
The Path To Reconciliation Is To Tell The Truth About The Past
The museum complex was created by attorney Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which is committed to challenging racial and economic injustice. Stevenson believes that we have all been wounded by our past, and that as a result, we are all suffering. And he believes that the path to reconciliation is by remembering the past, and telling the truth about it so that we can heal and move forward.
Stevenson says, “Slavery has never been fully eradicated in America, but has instead evolved over time, from Jim Crow laws that codified segregation, to the racial terrorism and violence of lynching that ensured the continuation of white supremacy. Today, mass incarceration and excessive punishment carry on the legacy of racism.”
It has been more than two weeks since we visited Montgomery, and I’ve spent part of every day since reading and reflecting on the ways in which racial bias has played a pivotal role in our history and in who we are today. I suspect that the majority of people who visit the Legacy Museum are those who are already interested in shining light into the dark corners of our history. But Stevenson, like MLK, seems to be taking the long view of the arc of moral justice, and holds hope that the “grandchildren of our grandchildren” will reach a place where we are all truly free of racial bias.
The National Memorial For Peace And Justice
One mile from the Legacy Museum is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, sometimes referred to as “The Lynching Memorial.” The memorial was created in remembrance of the more than 4,400 Black Americans who were victims of racially motivated torture and killings.
The horrific practice of lynching arose after the Civil War and continued unabated into the early 1950s. White mobs dragged Black victims from jail or from their homes, and hanged, burned, shot, and mutilated them. Sometimes these crimes of terror were committed in the dark of night, and sometimes, they were advertised and celebrated by entire communities. The murders were enacted with impunity, with local law enforcement turning a blind eye or participating in the brutality.
Terrorizing Black Communities To Maintain White Supremacy
Petty theft, looking at a white woman, or acting “uppity” are all reasons that Black people were lynched. Some crimes committed by Blacks were serious, including rape and murder. But the vast majority were minor crimes, or no crime at all. Black people were lynched for political activism, for operating a successful business, or in one instance, for scolding a white child for throwing rocks.
The common factor behind lynching was to terrorize Black communities, and to keep Black people subservient and fearful…all with the goal of maintaining white supremacy.
The memorial is set on a hill of velvety green grass. A walkway leads past a bronze sculpture of Black people chained together, entering into a life of bondage in America.
The path leads into a simple and artistically designed open canopy of weathered steel boxes suspended from the ceiling, clearly meant to evoke the image of the thousands of Black lynching victims that were strung from trees.
It is a beautiful and devastating memorial. Each steel box represents a county that experienced a lynching between 1877 and 1950. The names of the victims, and the dates they were murdered, are etched into the boxes. We walked slowly through the maze of memorials, silently reading the names of the victims, and mourning their senseless deaths.
Where We Stayed
For our visit to Montgomery, we stayed at the very nice Gunter Hill COE Campground. The sites are spacious, with water and electric hookups, and Verizon is good. Best of all, our friends Ken and Shannon were also staying at the campground, and we shared a very hot and humid Alabama cocktail hour at their site. Shannon wrote an excellent post about their visit to Montgomery on their blog Zamia Ventures. I highly recommend reading it for more insight into the museum, the memorial, and other civil rights sites in Montgomery and the surrounding area.