Known as the “Capital of Dreams,” Montgomery is the epicenter of the Civil Rights movement replete with museums, memorials and a deep history of racial inequality. Public Rights Project, led by Jill Habig, is a Bay Area based nonprofit dedicated toward protecting people’s core rights and freedoms by empowering state and local prosecutors. We, Taylor and Keely, joined in on the winter retreat to Montgomery to observe and learn along with the PRP staff and fellows.
We spent the previous day seeing the sights in both Montgomery and Selma: the Legacy Museum (founded by the Equal Justice Initiative or EJI), Edmund Pettus Bridge and the National Voting Rights Museum. And then, on that terribly nice day, we approach the six-acre hilltop that is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
The $20M endeavor by EJI is, at first, disarming. Beautiful. Beckoning, even. As we walk through and, gradually as the ground slopes downwards, we walk beneath 805 steel coffins, the blinding sunshine throws more than four thousand names in sharp relief.
Forty-four hundred documented lynchings between 1877 and 1950. Forty-four hundred moms and dads and teenagers who had been walking or working or on their way home. On one day alone, there were over twenty lynchings for a particular county. That’s an entire neighborhood.
Eventually, the names end. The path leads us out to a green lawn and to that nice, nice day. Our group walks around the memorial a bit more and then, we leave. We do other things that day like meet with representatives from EJI. We eat dinner at Dreamland BBQ. We check email and sit at airport terminals. We go home.
It is simply impossible to visit a place like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice without feeling deeply unsettled and sad and angry.
At the same time, it could be easy to check the “being woke” box. Montgomery represents a very painful time for people who, to this day, feel the repercussions in mass enforcement, mass incarceration, mass oppression. We of the good-vibes-only generations are tempted to experience this history from arm’s length: we do our tourist duty, we visit and we talk about how impactful the memorials and the museums are. Then, we leave and go back to our normal lives.
But to do so would be to completely reject reality–the quest for justice is far from over.
The memorial is not entertainment. It’s not a way for us to placate our collective conscience – as if by visiting we make up for the privilege of being alive now versus then. It’s not really for us at all. It also does not commemorate one event that happened long ago; lynching was a systematic abuse of power and privilege for decades, that publicly and intentionally intimidated our nation’s black population.
Today, racial terrorism continues. We must examine how the government, historically and currently, plays a part in enforcing systemic racism, but we must ask those dark-night-of-the-soul questions. What can I do? What will I do? What am I doing now to stop the unjust treatment of my fellow human beings?
The memorial is for the future. A call to action, a commemoration for those we failed and a declaration that we will do and be better.
PRP, EJI, Incite.org and others are answering that call. How am I? How are you?
Taylor and Keely