REFLECTIONS FROM MONTGOMERY

Chatham impressions from a visit to the EJI

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Nearly a dozen Chatham residents, most of them members of the Community Remembrance Coalition-Chatham, spent part of last week in Montgomery, Alabama. Originally planned for 2020 but delayed by COVID-19, the trip’s focus was to spend time at The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, flagship projects of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative’s (eji.org). Here are impressions from the experience from some members of the group.

‘... the full and accurate truth’

I grew up in a small town in eastern North Carolina in the middle of Lost Cause mythology. Black history was left out of my education. I needed re-education in American history that tells the full and accurate truth. Training through Greensboro’s Racial Equity Institute was transformative to my understanding of the inequities that persist in American society because of the horrors and injustices of the past.

And wonderful museums such as the Legacy Museum and Memorial for Peace and Justice at EJI, the Rosa Parks Museum and others in Montgomery and elsewhere bring history to life through photos, videos, artifacts and animations. Immersion in the history of slavery, the Civil War, the broken promises of Reconstruction, lynchings, segregation, violence perpetrated on peaceful Black and white protesters during the Civil Rights struggle and current struggles for fairness in the criminal justice system has fueled my dedication to learning, personal awareness and action.

On this trip I added my name to the Wall of Justice at the Civil Right Memorial Center, committing myself to continue to work for racial equity, justice and healing.

Vickie Atkinson, CRC-C secretary

‘... a painful truth’

After visiting The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, I was most impacted by the room with the sign, A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY. The room also displayed hundreds of jars of soil from around the United States, with the name of the person lynched, date and year lynched and a short story educating the public about the lynching.

In addition to the stories I have heard, I was able to see and read about a painful truth that needs telling of a long history of racial injustice and wrongful convictions against people of color.

Mary Nettles, CRC-C president

‘... heart-wrenching, uncomfortable’

I thought I knew … enough.

But I didn’t. My 1970s and 1980s high school education had given me glimpses of the horrors of our American forebears’ treatment of fellow humans. But I didn’t realize until adulthood just how recently so many atrocities occurred — and how widely accepted and covered up they were. Equally poignant are the stories of victory and survival and forgiveness and faith. Last week’s visit to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, connected historical and emotional dots for me, and, though heart-wrenching and uncomfortable, the experience deepened my understanding of what I thought I knew.

If you’ve ever stood on the same ground where a historically or spiritually significant event occurred — or touched the same bricks, stone, or wood as respected or beloved figures from the past — you know its power to move you. In Montgomery, in Selma, on the Edmund Pettus bridge, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, past merged with present, layer upon layer of powerful emotion: resolve, strength, determination, non-violence, love — deep love. Let’s never cease proclaiming the truth that we are all equal in the eyes of God and need to treat each other as such.

Lee Ann Horner

‘The scale ... was truly astounding’

I think what most struck me about the Museum was the way it connected slavery and incarceration. The 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, made an exception for “punishment for crime.” After reconstruction was ended, the Southern states used this loophole to incarcerate large numbers of former slaves, often for nebulous offenses like loitering, and to lease these “convicts” out to planters in need of farm labor.

In some ways this convict leasing was worse than slavery. At least slave owners had an economic incentive to preserve the life and health of the slaves they owned; planters who leased convicts had no reason not to work them to death. The scale of this practice was truly astounding. Late in the 19th century more than 70% of the budget of the state of Alabama came from receipts from convict leasing.

Ped Frazier

‘... a truly national tragedy’

Four things struck me about the trip to Montgomery.

First was the courage of EJI to tell the whole story of the entire country’s involvement in slavery, the slave trade, and the benefits of the slave trade north and south. I saw graphically that slavery was a truly national tragedy.

Second was how many ordinary citizens throughout our history stepped forward to do extraordinary things.

Third, the sheer inhumanity of the institution of slavery deeply impressed me, especially the breakup of family lives and deliberate cruelty to individual slaves.

Finally, I admire the focus on the work that remains to be done. All that has happened is also a pointer to reconciliation, and I liked that goal especially.

Bob Pearson, CRC-C co-coordinator

I am so thankful that I was able to go on this trip to Montgomery, Alabama. It was both educational and inspiring.

I had heard that the Legacy Museum had expanded and represented one of the most complete depositories of information from slavery to mass incarceration. It did not disappoint. Not only is there massive amounts of information but they have used technology very well to communicate in a very effective way. Most memorable for me was the first-hand accounts of the slave experience coming from a hologram of the person in a cell. It was as if we were speaking with the person.

But most memorable of the trip was the visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Situated on a hill overlooking Montgomery, the Memorial sits solemnly receiving the visitors into its core. As if absorbing us into the pain and loss represented by the hundreds of hanging columns, each representing a county where lynchings have occurred. We found our own column for Chatham County where six persons were hanged.

Coming away, we both grieve and resolve to never forget. This trip was not an end but a beginning.

Mike Dillon

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