Last week, I took a trip to Alabama with fellow clergy from New London and colleagues from the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. For three days we made a pilgrimage to sites, memorials, and museums important to the legacy of Civil Rights. What follows are my initial impressions of the trip in brief. I am still (and will be for a long time) processing and integrating my encounters with historic and current injustice in this country, and I will be revisiting my experience as I write more during this sabbatical time.
Tuesday Morning: The Civil Rights Memorial (Southern Poverty Law Center)
Our very first stop was the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, AL. Pictured above is the memorial itself, a round upside-down cone of stone with water running across its face, along with the wall behind, which also has water running down it. Inscribed there is one of Martin Luther King Jr’s most often-quoted passages of scripture.
Accompanying the memorial is a museum dedicated to forty martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement. No matter how much reading, reflection, and prayer I did before this trip, I was not emotionally prepared to be encounter this room. Each martyr has a small portrait describing their contributions to the Movement and the circumstances of their murders. The moment I arrived at the portraits of the four young girls killed in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, I broke down crying – less than five minutes into the formal beginning of the pilgrimage.
Proximity to historical and present injustice is important. Some people live with the effects of racial injustice everyday. Others, like me, have the privilege of shielding ourselves from those effects, turning away, living in a state of willing ignorance. At the Civil Rights Memorial, I made a commitment never again to lessen my proximity to injustice and instead walk in the shoes of those brave martyrs who fought for the civil and human rights of people who had been denied them.
As I departed the Civil Rights Memorial museum, a famous quotation from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel spoke to me from the wall near the exit: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor. Never the victim.”
Tuesday Morning: Freedom Riders’ museum
Going in, I thought I knew the broad strokes of the Freedom Riders: Black and white demonstrators, mostly students, rode an interstate bus through the south to protest segregation and their lives were threatened along the way. As with most of my knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement, I discovered I only had a partial and often watered-down understanding.
Here’s the most important thing I learned at the Freedom Riders’ Museum (and which was reinforced the next day at the Legacy Museum): The Freedom Riders’ rode that bus because three times the Supreme Court had affirmed that segregation was illegal in interstate travel (which included the bus itself and the terminals at which it stopped). Again, they rode to assert their rights, which were affirmed by the Supreme Court. Somehow I had it in my head that the actors in the Civil Rights Movement were breaking unjust laws in order to shine a light on their injustice – and in some cases that was true. But in this case and in the brave acts of school integration and in trying to register to vote, the lawbreakers were actually those wielding political power in Southern states: the governors, mayors, voting registrars, police, etc (and they were wildly popular in their defiance).
Flipping this narrative in my head was an important aha! moment for me, for I realized I had been viewing the Civil Rights Movement from the wrong perspective. I had unconsciously bought into the narrative that if you are put in jail, you must have done something wrong, which is exactly what folks like Bull Connor want me to think. This same narrative continues to play out today when one confronts the reality of mass incarceration in this country. The pilgrimage last week helped me change my narrative of history, which is helping me change my narrative of the present.
Tuesday Afternoon: Tuskegee
We drove about forty minutes outside of Montgomery to the HBCU* Tuskegee University, where we had lunch and toured the George Washington Carver Museum. All I knew about Carver was that he could make a peanut into anything, but the man was a marvel beyond that – a true Renaissance man, and a man of deep faith.
I was so excited for what came next – a visit to Moten Field, where the Tuskegee Airmen trained to fly in combat in World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen put to flight the lie that Black people did not have the intelligence or stamina to pilot aircraft. They suffered injustice after injustice on their way to fight for their country, and they overcame it all. When they returned from the war, they returned to the racial caste system that they had left. But their witness to bravery and excellence helped drive the desegregation of the Armed Forces and helped kickstart the Civil Rights Movement.
I thought my favorite moment of the museum would be seeing my favorite airplane of all time, the P-51 Mustang (with the famous red tails of the Tuskegee Airmen). But my favorite moment turned out to be the infectious joy of our guide’s 92-year-old mother when she found her husband’s name on the list of airmen.
Wednesday Morning: The Legacy Museum
The Legacy Museum is curated by the Equal Justice Initiative (or EJI, founded by Just Mercy author Bryan Stevenson). More than any place we went on the pilgrimage, the Legacy Museum shows the power of confronting historical narrative in order to see the present more clearly. The legacy of enslavement** in the United States reverberates to the present, resulting in mass incarceration of people of color. The museum shows the evolution of slavery – first to the era of racial terror lynchings and then to the era of Jim Crow segregation.
Like the Freedom Riders’ Museum, the Legacy Museum tells the narrative of justice delayed – that is, the highest laws and ideals of the United States said one thing, but the practice on the ground said another. One old story of American history tells the pitting of state governments against the federal government. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Southern states’ resistance to integration. Moreover, several attempts at federal anti-lynching laws were tried in the first half of the 20th century, and they all failed because of conscious effort by Southern legislators to defeat them.***
I encourage you to watch this incredible video for a short glimpse into the narrative that the Legacy Museum shares.
I spent over two hours wandering through this fairly small museum because there was so much to read and ponder and confront. Much of this content of this museum asks the viewer just to look at it and not shy away: images and words from children sentenced to die in prison; a collections of signs from the era of Jim Crow showing the dehumanizing effects of segregation; a display of actual town ordinances detailing the minute detail that went into preserving the racial caste system; pictorial evidence of many gruesome lynchings, which often drew large crowds like a sporting event might today; jars of dirt collected from sites where Black people were lynched; and newspaper advertisements for slave auctions. This museum has a similar effect on the viewer as the Holocaust museum in Washington – it shows in unflinching detail the horrors some humans will visit upon other humans. And it compels the only rational response possible – a vow never to repeat the history it shares.
As Maya Angelou says, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
Wednesday Afternoon: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice
I won’t spend long on this here because I plan to write an entire post about it for next week. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (sometimes referred to as the Lynching Memorial) is the companion memorial to the Legacy Museum. Also the brainchild of Bryan Stevenson, the memorial is only a mile or two from the museum in downtown Montgomery. One needs to walk through this memorial to feel its power; pictures and words cannot do it justice. I am certain the physical and emotional discomfort I felt walking this memorial was intended by the designers. Each slab of metal in the memorial is engraved with the name of a county in a state where a lynching took place. Below the name of the county the names of the victims and the dates of their deaths are recorded. Some say “Unknown” because the victim’s name is either missing from the record or there is uncertainty as to the name.
The sheer number of victims – over 4,000 memorialized here, which is surely not the full extent of the slaughter – shows that lynching was not just a horrible practice engaged in by a small number of rogue vigilantes. It was what the EJI calls “Racial Terror” – an organized system of fear and control over the Black masses that lasted several decades and resulted in six million southern African Americans fleeing north. (The number 6 million was not lost on my rabbi friend who was also on the trip.)
Each slab of metal in the memorial has a corresponding slab outside, which are staged there, ready to be taken to their named counties and displayed. Most have not left the grounds, including my home county, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Thursday Morning: 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham
On Thursday, we loaded up our rental cars and drove to Birmingham. Our first stop was the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of the bombing on September 15, 1963 that killed four young teenagers: Addie Mae Collins, Denise MacNair, Carole Robinson, and Cynthia Wesley. These were the girls whose pictures I had seen in Montgomery two days earlier. We watched a video in the church of eyewitness accounts of the bombings, and the video made me realize just how recently this happened. The people in the video are my parents’ age, as were the victims of the bombing. Such bombings were so common in Birmingham it earned the nickname “Bombingham.” Can you imagine the systemic hate that leads to such action? Oh Lord, deliver us from the same.
After the bombing, the church was given a beautiful new stained glass window, a gift from the people of Wales. This window was installed in 1964; just imagine the courage it took to display a Black Jesus in the aftermath of the bombing.
The words at the bottom of the window say, “You do it to me,” a reference to Matthew 25, in which the king separating the sheep from the goats says that whatever you do to “the least of these my children,” you do to me.
Thursday Morning: The Civil Rights Institute and the Park
After the church, we walked across the street to tour the Civil Rights Institute. We were the only group of adults in the midst of several busloads of school children. I was so glad to see so many young people being exposed to our shared history. Indeed, this museum is geared to the young, but anyone will benefit from visiting. What I found most especially helpful were the year-by-year timelines of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama juxtaposed to a wider timeline of U.S. history.
After the museum, we made our way into the park across the street. This park was the site of the children’s march, which began 56 years ago that day (May 2, 1963). We concluded the formal time of pilgrimage sitting in the park and reading aloud portions of Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which King wrote in response to white clergy expressing their view that the Movement was not timely. These famous words rang for me that day:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
As I look at the stack of books on my desk that I have read about racism and white supremacy over the last two years, I am glad to have made this pilgrimage to Alabama. Confronting images and narratives and walking in the places many Civil Rights martyrs and participants walked has deepened my engagement with the cause of racial healing, justice, and reconciliation. What has been for me as I’ve read very much a “head” endeavor, has become – thanks to this pilgrimage – one of the heart, as well.
As I write my sabbatical notes over the next few months, many will return to this pilgrimage and the topics to which it bent my heart. Next week, please return for a longer essay about my experience at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
* Historically Black Colleges and Universities
** I use the terms “enslavement” and “enslaved people” more often than “slavery” and “slaves” in order to remember that enslavement was something some people did to other people, not a naturally occurring identity.
*** I know I’m talking a lot about the South here, but that’s because that’s where I was. The North’s culpability in the history of enslavement – especially in the Transatlantic kidnapping, dehumanization, and sale of people from Africa – was not the focus of this trip. But it is important to remember and interrogate in our own communities in New England.