My Turn: We cannot vanquish racism by ignoring history

  • Over 1,600 corten steel monuments were made for the memorial; approximately 800 are suspended from the ceiling. The memorial is both an interior and exterior experience; a place of darkness and a place of light. Chali Davis / For the Monitor

  • A quiet, sacred place, the memorial begins on a level plane, and the observer is eye to eye with the identities of those who were lynched. As one walks through the memorial, the path drops down until the memorials hang overhead, and, in the words of Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, “violence and terror are lifted up.” Chali Davis / For the Monitor

  • Corten steel (weathering steel) was used to construct the 6-foot rectangular monuments. The alloy of metals in the steel cause it to form a thin layer of rust, creating a patina effect that protects and seals the structure. Chali Davis / For the Monitor

  • Each monument displays a different patinaed effect; each a separate silent witness to the individual lives lost. Chali Davis / For the Monitor

  • Visitors at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice quietly walk paths where etched steel monuments, replicas of the ones inside the memorial square, wait for counties to claim them and set them up as a memorial to their own citizens who lost lives to racial violence. Chali Davis / For the Monitor

  • The National Memorial for Peace and Justice lies at the top of a hill, creating a dissonance in the natural space. Suspended between earth and sky, the hard lines of the memorials evoke an unnatural feeling against the soft landscape; the rows and order speak to the rigidity of institutional racism. Chali Davis / For the Monitor

  • The Equal Justice Initiative headquarters in Montgomery, Ala. Chali Davis / For the Monitor

  • Two men enter the memorial in an embrace of friendship. Next to them, Martin Luther King’s words remind visitors, “True peace is not just the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” Chali Davis / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Published: 2/10/2019 12:35:12 AM

On April 27, 2018, in Montgomery, Ala., the sky could not have been more blue. The grass and trees were a vibrant green; flowers bloomed everywhere. In the morning sunshine, the world felt expansive and generous and full of promise.

My daughter and I had traveled to Montgomery to attend the opening of two new African American landmarks: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration. The landmarks were developed by the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based legal and human rights organization dedicated to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment as well as fighting economic and racial injustice throughout the United States.

As we walked toward the memorial, my heart quieted. A multitude of brown rectangles came into focus. Suspended between heaven and earth, these forms represented and honored the African Americans who had violently lost their lives in the dark years following the Civil War and Reconstruction’s failure.

Ahead of me, a white man in his mid-thirties hesitated at the entrance of the memorial. He was joined by a black man, and they stood quietly reading an inscription by Martin Luther King Jr. They draped their arms around each other and walked the pathway into the memorial. At this catalog of white crime, in this resting place of black innocents, I was riveted by this gesture of love, at the men’s willingness to view this raw, cruel history in an embrace of friendship.

The weight

The memorial is a place of lingering: More than 4,400 names were engraved on those suspended rectangles, each representing a county or state. I saw that three people were lynched on Christmas day. I wondered how warped a mind must be to justify killing, with proclaimed Christian hands, on the holiest of Christian days.

When I began walking through the memorial, the monuments were at eye level. As I moved forward, they rose above me until, at last, I was under them, overwhelmed by the number, emotionally encumbered by their weight. This memorial is an essential contribution to both the African American narrative and our collective national memory; it is also a faithful documentation of domestic, white terrorism.

Outside, the same monuments, with the same names, lay along gravel pathways. As part of its truth-telling mission, the Equal Justice Initiative is asking counties to acknowledge and confront their violent past by claiming their monument and placing it in a visible place within the county.

As I left the memorial, I thought of the individuals represented behind me: They were men and women who were tenderly loved. They were skilled craftsmen who had simply asked for a fair wage. They were thirsty people who drank from the wrong well, or friendly people who smiled at the wrong person. Children were left without the loving guidance of a parent. Widows and widowers struggled forward alone. Lynching did not just take single lives; it dealt generational, economic and community wounds.

As I walked the pathway from the museum, a light breeze crossed my face, and I became aware again of the lovely sky and blooming landscape. It was the beauty of the April day that delivered the final painful thought: The people who hung there were robbed of brilliant days and joyful occasions – of picnics and stargazing, of shell collecting and celebration. They were robbed of those inspiring moments when even the crisp morning air makes hopes and dreams seem easy.

Our nation was also lessened by their deaths: Their impact upon the world was prematurely halted; their full contribution to humanity was left unrealized.

The legacy

We had arrived the day before, with tickets in hand for the Legacy Museum, and the weather then was rainy and cool. Despite the gray weather, there was a determined, positive energy in the air and those who walked the streets between the monument and the museum, tucked under umbrellas and rain jackets, shared an excited wonder at the thousands of people, black and white, who had shown up to witness and participate in this significant event.

Occupying the space of a former slave warehouse, the Legacy Museum spans the African American experience, and visitors follow a path from slavery to mass incarceration. The museum is not only historically and visually encompassing, it employs state-of-the-art technology to create an immersive experience.

As visitors move into the museum, a row of holding cells appears on the right. As I moved in front of each cell, holograms of enslaved African Americans materialized. An African American woman, kidnapped from her northern home, implored me to help her find her children. In another cell, her small children pleaded to return to their mother.

In the section of the museum dedicated to the history of lynching, an interactive map allows visitors to explore the counties in the United States where lynching occurred and find out who, how many and when. Rising up behind this map, a shelved wall holds large clear jars, each with a victim’s name and date of death printed on the front. The individual jars are filled with soil collected by volunteers from each of the lynching sites, the individuality of the lives lost illustrated in the array of reds, blacks, browns and tans of earth.

In the final section, prison visitor booths are lined up. As I picked up the phone, a prisoner’s image came to life, and picked up his or her phone. Through the use of videography, former male and female inmates told their actual stories of unjust incarceration.

The new African American historical landmarks in Montgomery seek to remember and honor, while reminding America that slavery did not end in 1865; it merely reinvented itself through segregation, racial terrorism and mass incarceration – poisons that continue to pollute our society today.

While the opening events were attended by thousands of people, and collective experiences brought forth feelings of hope, sorrow, admiration, determination and celebration, the events were also intensely personal.

As I prepared for our trip, I thought about who I was, and I began to wonder what right I had to be there. I thought of the spaces I would encounter, so painful and haunting. How could I, the granddaughter of a Texan who wouldn’t let my mother swim in the same pool with black children, stand on African American sacred ground?

I pondered my own childhood, in which racism was fed to me as casually as buttered toast. My private and public education neither acknowledged nor denied it; the first 16 years of my education simply failed to include the African American story at all. And for all I’ve learned since, and for all I’ve let go, I still confront the unruly runner of racism that pokes through the surface of my mind – long after I thought the weed was destroyed.

I traveled to Montgomery because African American history is our shared history and those spaces are my spaces, too. The work to end racism, inequity and injustice is my work, too – a work that is both singular and collective. Justice for All will not come from one person; it will be the work of many people, people who tell the truth, people who confront their biases.

The fire

It wasn’t until around the Civil War that the first government-sponsored fire departments were organized. Until that time, (and long after in the smaller towns), the responsibility for answering the call “FIRE!” was one everyone shared. Young, old, male, female, black, white – a fire was everyone’s responsibility; a fire was everyone’s problem. A fire unheeded meant that in one’s own hour of need, no one would come. A fire unheeded was also a danger to all; fire leaps from place to place, indiscriminate of wealth, position, gender, age or skin color.

In this country, the evil fire of racism still rages. I do not possess the largest, most effective bucket. But I do have a bucket. And I can fill it. I can pass it forward, throw it at the flames or fill up the buckets of those on the front lines. The destructive fire of racism is everyone’s responsibility; it is everyone’s concern.

Now is the time to question those beliefs that were instilled in you. They are there, not because you are a bad person, but because once upon a time you were an innocent person. The people who taught you to tie your shoes, who read to you at night, and who eased your fevers with cool cloths, also passed along racism. And these loved ones started out innocent as well.

That wrong information may never have been confronted in your classrooms or in your religious education. It’s time to admit that it exists in you, and it is time to confront it. You may not have put it in there, but you can take it out. And you can pass along truth to your children. You can ask our public and private schools to do a better job in telling all of America’s history.

The Equal Justice Initiative that built these spaces of remembrance is urging America to do just this – to tell an honest history, so that we can progress as a nation in our quest for equal opportunity for all of our citizens. The race issue is incredibly complex, but telling the truth is the first step in solving the problem. We cannot address the continued evils of racism if our nation’s foundational understanding of African American history is built on ignorance, lies and denial.

In my mind and in my heart, I am still walking these spaces. I am confronting my personal history. I will not rest. America is not a land of liberty until all of those who live in its borders are free from racism’s evil tread of injustice and inequity. ‬America is not a land of opportunity until every person can walk out into a beautiful spring morning and breathe in the deep pure joy of hope and expectation.

In working to free others, we free ourselves; in embracing everyone’s potential, we build a stronger future for us all.

(Chali Davis is a N.H. educator, working as an assistant principal at Concord High School. Formerly an English and Humanities teacher, she is especially grateful to her social studies colleagues who deepened her understanding of American history and of social justice issues, and for her students whose kind hearts and social activism give her great hope for the future.)

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