Last month, I was one of 30 people Carolina Jews for Justice gathered to make pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama. Among the sites we visited were the Rosa Parks museum, Freedom Riders Museum, Dexter Street Baptist Church and the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, all living testimonials dedicated to the process of truth and racial reconciliation that I believe are essential to our country’s healing and our collective future.
Here are a few immediate reflections:
Montgomery lives in infamy as a hub where the horrors of the slave trade thrived and the ugliest of segregation prospered. Today, the streets are filled with markers and museums telling that story, a credit to the city in and of itself.
At the Legacy Museum, I meandered broken-hearted and teary through exhibits tracing the progression of racial violence that began with slavery and then continued on in the practice of convict leasing and then morphed into Jim Crow segregation and then evolved into the practice of mass incarceration that persists today. Part of the experience is that no matter where one stands in that space, one can hear voices raised up in song, reminding us that music is one of the deepest and most powerful forms of organized spiritual resistance and survival.
The Memorial for Peace and Justice is an extraordinary memorial for the 4,075 documented victims of mob lynchings from 1877 to 1950. Eight hundred and five casket sized steel pillars stand or hang, engraved with the names (when known) of victims from the 805 counties in twelve southern states in which known lynching crimes took place. Sadly, a pillar with the names of John Humphreys, Hezekiah Rankin and Bob Brackett, who were brutally lynched in Buncombe County stands among them. The sheer size and scope of this monument to people who were murdered for asking for a drink of water, leaving work without permission or looking at a white person, dispelled any notions I may have held previously that this form of gruesome racial terror was perpetrated on the fringe and out of public view. In most cases, the opposite was true. In fact, there were lynchings that were planned spectacles and drew as many as 15,000 onlookers.
Some of my fellow pilgrims are hard at work in our county fulfilling the Equal Justice Initiative’s larger vision for their monument: to engage communities in which lynchings took place in a process of education and racial reconciliation after which time they will send a duplicate pillar to them to remember this painful shared history. I hope that we in Buncombe County will rise to that challenge and aspiration.
As if by design, the Dexter Street Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King started his civil rights career alongside Rosa Parks with the bus boycotts, left a final, hopeful impression on me. I’ll not soon forget the enthusiastic hug with which the docent welcomed us at the door and then how she sang and preached her own King-inspired gospel about love and service to others. I couldn’t have agreed more when she said, “Love…is a way life.” Deep in my heart I must believe, we shall overcome…someday. We still have work to do.