Montgomery, Alabama is a clean, glistening city. Sunlight dances off the white, marble dome of the Capitol building. There are posters for an African-American candidate for Mayor this year. You might think that its terrifying past of racial terror is in the rearview mirror.
But then you talk to Pastor Ed Nettles, lifelong resident of Montgomery. After sharing his memories of terrifying Ku Klux Klan marches he admits that his white neighbor living next to him turns his back on him every time they are near each other. After recalling the childhood abuse he suffered from a white man stepping on his hand so he wouldn’t pick up a Mardi Gras necklace, he shakes his head slowly when we ask if things really are better.
He says that it will take several generations of young people who won’t tolerate with the legacy of hate, who will then finally throw off the yoke of this city’s racist legacy. This is a legacy which still honors Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, which fought defend white peoples’ right to own other human beings, specifically because of their color.
That racist legacy is brilliantly brought to life by the Equal Justice Initiative, the work of Bryan Stevenson, the author of the best-seller, Just Mercy. The initiative is publicly shared in two parts.
First, there is a museum chronicling the history of slavery and degradation of people of color over the centuries in America. We walk the exhibits in silent awe and shame.
But the museum is filled with more the eye-catching pictures and powerful video re-enactments and timelines. In one room there are hundreds of large jars, 24 inches tall and 6 inches wide, filled with dirt. These soil samples are from where each of thousands of African-American women, children and men were lynched, murdered on the merest pretext, often in front of enthusiastic, blood-thirsty crowds. Shelf after shelf neatly stacked with row after row of jar after jar – each one containing the DNA remains of a lynching victim listed by name. We walk by the jars and read the names of the dead in silent awe and shame.
From there we take a shuttle from the Museum to the Memorial. The memorial is composed of large, 10 foot slabs of metal with the name of more than 800 counties in the US in which lynching took place for the better part of 90 years. Each slab has the names of the victims listed. They are suspended from the ceiling of the outdoor exhibit. We enter and walk the grounds in silent awe and shame.
There is a plaque on the grounds that reads as follows:
For the hanged and beaten.
for the shot, drowned and burned.
For the tormented, tortured and terrorized,
For those abandoned by the rule of law
We will remember.
With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice,
With courage because peace requires bravery,
With persistence because justice is a constant struggle,
With faith because we shall overcome
Yizkor – We will remember. It feels like visiting Yad Vashem, but with no end of this story. We walk from the grounds in silent awe and shame.
I pound my head with my hand, trying to comprehend – Fellow Americans did these atrocities. And past has been prologue – Fellow Americans still perpetrate violence against people of color because they are deemed to be of less value than white people. The past was slavery and lynching. The present is mass incarceration and violence, even death at the hands of the police and other white people.
At the end of the evening, back at the hotel, I walk slowly back to my lovely hotel room. In silence and in shame. And this is just day one.
Rabbi Jamie Gibson serves Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, PA.