This April, I had the opportunity to travel with an amazing and diverse group of people to visit historical sites and museums documenting a significant part of this country’s history relative to Black people, beginning from the earliest days of white colonists bringing Black people over in chains to cultivate the natural resources they were in the process of stealing from the indigenous people who were already here, through the days of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the horrors of the Middle Passage, the promise of Reconstruction and the absolute betrayal that followed it and led to Jim Crow, the fallacy of “separate but equal,” decades of lynching as a tool of domestic terror, the hope and progress of the Civil Rights movement along with tragic losses and assassinations, up to the present day where drug laws have been used to rapidly increase the prison population where a nightmare (allowed by the 13th amendment) known as “convict leasing” allows white people to, as we have done for more than 400 years, continue to gain wealth via the exploitation of Black bodies.
I’ve spent the last two months trying to figure out how to share what I saw, learned, experienced, and felt during those four days. It’s not easy. The horrors are immense, the present-day problems massively complex and far-reaching, and the systemic obstacles (both active and passive) daunting and depressing. There wasn’t a person with us who was not overcome with emotion multiple times. So I’m going to do the best I can, because I need to, and acknowledge that there may be better ways to say these things.
There were about 20 of us on the Journey (side note: we were asked, and I’m sticking with it, to call this a “Journey.” Something that’s a trip has a beginning and an end. A journey, on the other hand, is an ongoing process, and this is sure as heck an ongoing process), ranging in age from ~30 or so to 70+. Our group was roughly half Black and half white. A couple of people on the journey, including the man who organizes and runs these events, are practicing pastors, but we had atheists and Jewish people (and perhaps more). Our group was gay and straight. One person uses a wheelchair to get around. Some grew up financially well-off. Some grew up incredibly poor. Interacting with people with this variety of perspectives made the journey that much more meaningful and rewarding.
The journey was organized by the Justice Journey Alliance, based in Chicago, and was one in an ongoing series of such pilgrimages to help build understanding and strive to find a way forward. This journey was the first of its kind, aimed at business leaders in the Chicago area with a goal of finding ways to use the resources and connections within this community to make progress towards a future with racial equity and justice. Though I am not a leader of a business, I was invited due to my role on our office’s Anti-Racism Core Team.
During our journey, we visited four cities – Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham. We flew in and out of Atlanta and then took a coach bus to our various destinations.
In Atlanta, we went to the Martin Luther King Jr Center – a museum chronicling his life, his accomplishments, the culture in which he lived and worked. We watched an incredibly powerful documentary about his assassination told in large part by people who were there that day. (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1360068/)
Did you know, for example, that the rate of death threats he received went up significantly as he supported the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ strike (which is why he was in Memphis when he was murdered) and prepared for the Poor People’s March on Washington? As someone put it, having Black kids in your kids’ school or letting Black people vote might not take a chunk out of your bank account, but if the system was changed to one with economic justice, well, that sure would?
One of the things that made this whole experience work was effective community-building. By the end of the bus ride the first night from Atlanta to Montgomery, connections were definitely being built and everyone seemed like they felt comfortable with everyone else.
This is the day that is hardest to process – I think for all of us. We visited two places in Montgomery: The Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. They are both run by the Equal Justice Initiative, a group that has, for decades, worked to save the lives of people wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. Both of these museums, I believe, should be required viewing for anyone in this country who can get there. Unfortunately for this conversation, we were not able to take photos in The Legacy Museum, so you will have to rely on what I can write here.
I am somewhat of a connoisseur of museums. There are a lot of ways to display artifacts and tell stories. Some museums don’t do much more than arrange what portion of their collection they want you to see. Others use technology, layout, artistry, and the space itself to increase the impact of what they are saying. The Legacy Museum is as well-done as any I have ever seen. I was so glad to see that – the story it tells is so very important, and it is presented in a way that conveys that. (The restaurant attached to the museum also serves some of the best fried chicken I have ever had.)
The power of The Legacy Museum comes from many directions. The level of detail they went into as they researched this part of our history was exceptional. They seamlessly integrate technology, information, and artistry to convey information in powerful and informative ways. They collect artifacts that took away my ability to speak as I stood before them. And they choose language very carefully – not embellishing with unnecessarily emotional pleas, because it’s utterly unnecessary. Consider the term “enslaved persons” versus “slaves,” for example. When someone is a slave, it is who they are. When someone is enslaved, it is something that is done to them. The phrasing that blew my mind was replacing “life in prison” with “death in prison.” Means the same thing, right? Does it feel the same? Not even close.
I cannot possibly detail all of the things that left an impact on me. I didn’t even get to see all of it in the depth I wanted due to scheduling. Some particular notes:
- A clear history of how the entirety of the American colonies participated in the process of kidnapping people from Africa, putting barbaric “chains” on them – seriously, seeing the actual devices used to force enslaved people to do as they were told teaches you that the awful images you might have in your mind of men and women chained together at the ankles pale in comparison with reality, bringing them across the Atlantic crammed in the holds of ships, and then sold them in ports north and south. Somewhere around 12 million people were kidnapped and forced into slavery, and somewhere around 2 million of them died during the voyage across the ocean. Sit with those numbers for a minute.
- A discussion of how this process started. The first colonists came here and tried to force Indigenous people to do the work for them. That proved to be too hard, so they started kidnapping people from Africa. It’s kind of mind-boggling that the white people didn’t even give it the good-old college try. They looked at the vast wealth on this continent, decided that it would be too hard to take it all for themselves, and immediately set about finding people they could force to do it for them. Of course, they’d been given explicit permission to do this – hell, one Pope even encouraged it.
- A discussion of how, at the end of the Civil War, Reconstruction opened political power and political office to Black men (it took 100 years to expand voting rights to all Black women, of course), and Black voters showed up in droves to exercise this power. Black people were elected to office all over the South. And then by the mid-late 1870’s, it was all gone. Jim Crow became king. If you don’t know how, it was largely due to the 1876 election. The presidential election was contested – multiple slates of electors from some states, other states being unable to declare a clear winner. Rutherford B. Hayes was essentially tied with his opponent, a southern Democrat. Hayes cut a deal – he would be declared the winner of the election and he would pull federal troops from throughout the South. Since those troops were the primary thing standing between the racist mobs who were still pissed off about the Civil War and Black people voting and serving in public office, once the troops were gone, the gates slammed rapidly.
- After that, the era of lynching began in earnest. (The National Memorial for Peace and Justice tells very personal stories of lynching, and I’ll get to that soon.) White people responded to crimes – real and imagined – committed by Black people with organized mob violence. And this wasn’t the “men in white hoods keeping their identities secret” mob, either. These were parties and picnics that often took place on Sundays after church. We know this because there are photographs. Families in their Sunday best with small children around them eating fried chicken out of picnic baskets while the body of a Black victim hung in the tree overhead. People were not ashamed of this behavior. There is an exhibit at The Legacy Museum that I cannot put emotions to, I can only describe it factually. Researchers have been diligently working to identify where lynchings took place, when, and who was murdered. They have gathered soil from the spots of the lynchings, under the trees, and filled jars. They have labeled the jars with a name and a date, writing “Unknown” where no name can be found, and they have lined shelf after shelf after shelf after shelf with these jars. The feelings I had looking at that, trying to hold space for each name, knowing that I could not, are not ones I know how to describe.
- I knew about Poll Taxes and Voting Tests and all, of course. I knew that the tests had questions that were either impossible to realistically answer or required knowledge of political events that required an encyclopedic knowledge to come close to answering. I knew about questions like “How many jellybeans are in this jar?” I did not know about questions like “How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?” I mean, what the fuck? The jellybean question is unfair and awful and disgusting, but there is an answer. One could count the jellybeans and know it. But questions without answers? I mean, the utter gall of putting that in writing? And whole systems existed to protect this.
- Finally, the part of the museum where I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time but which opened my eyes in understanding – the section on Mass Incarceration. I’ll talk more about this at some point, but as far as understanding the museum, this part is crucial. It connects all these horrors of the past to things happening right this very moment and forces us to understand what we own in this entire story. The centerpiece of this room are rows of chairs in front of video screens, each with a phone next to it, just like you’ve seen in a thousand shows and movies about visiting a prisoner. When you pick up the phone, a video starts playing of an actual person talking about their experience in prison. Some of these people have been freed, some are still in prison. These aren’t dusty artifacts about dead people.
After we finished with the Legacy Museum, all of us were emotionally fried. We had lunch and then went to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a block or two away. This museum is focused on documenting the history of lynching in the US. The research they did for the Legacy Museum is built on here, and they have memorials for every lynching they can document, organized by county and by state. These memorials are arranged twice. Each is a very large, rusted iron box engraved with the names (when known) and dates of every person lynched in that county. Below are the memorials for Illinois.
The first set of memorials are hung from the roof. You start out at eye level with them and then spiral down so that they slowly rise until they hang above your head.
The walls here are lined with “reasons” why people were lynched. They range from outsized reactions to small crimes to imagined offenses. One older woman was hung because she yelled at some young boys and told them to stop throwing rocks at her.
When you come out of this tunnel, you enter the second part of the museum where duplicates of each of the hanging memorials are laid out next to each other. This allows you to more easily read the names. One of the common things Black people do when they visit this museum is to search the names to see if they have any family members who were lynched.
Day 3 started with a bus trip to Selma. I wrote about this earlier, and I’ll copy that here: On March 7, 1965, hundreds of people gathered outside the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma to prepare for a 50 mile March to the state capital in Montgomery in order to demand that they be guaranteed the right to vote. One of the marchers that day was an 11 year old girl named JoAnn.
When the marchers tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by brutal and dehumanizing violence. Fire hoses. Police batons. Attack dogs. Many were severely injured, including one of the march’s leaders, John Lewis.
The marchers succeeded two weeks later, after support from numerous places, including a wide variety of religious leaders, and it wasn’t too much long after that when the Voting Rights Act was passed.
The space behind the church now is an old and cracking cement pad. It is surrounded by run-down public housing. Selma was poor in 1965, it’s poor now – the ninth-poorest city in the country. The median household income is just over $26,500/year.
Rocks like the one in the photo are all over the cement. JoAnn asked each of us to choose one and hold it up. When she looked at mine, she paused. “That’s John Lewis’ rock,” she said. “He stood on that rock before he marched to the bridge on Bloody Sunday.”
Then she took my hand in hers and closed my fingers around the rock. I was entrusted with it as a commitment for what John Lewis – and so many, many others – fought so hard for. She – the 11 year old girl and the 68 year old woman – told me in a voice filled with the pain of so many battles that it was my fight now.
After that, we walked from the church to the Edmund Pettis Bridge and crossed it, arm-in-arm with each other. We weren’t in danger of violence, of course, and we weren’t planning on walking 50 miles to Montgomery to protest for our rights, but we were still on sacred ground.
We took the bus from Selma to Birmingham to visit the Civil Rights Museum there (worth a visit, but a little dated, especially when compared with the Legacy Museum – they are beginning renovations, however). There was one moment there that took my breath away, however. One room was filled with large glass panels, each engraved with a ghostly figure of someone who might have been around in the 1960’s. There’s a speaker that plays quotes from people, words filled with bigotry and hate. The glass panels are sort of scattered around the room, so there’s no clear sightlines. And then when you get far enough into the room, there is what looks like another glass panel with a ghostly figure on the wall but is something far worse. It’s the robes and hood of a grand wizard of the KKK, all shiny and silky and white. When I realized that, I literally could not breathe for a time. I had to turn away from it. When you’re not looking at that, though, you can see a video of a small boy, maybe 4 or 5, wearing his very own white robes and hood (lifted so you can see his face). I could almost feel the hate emanating from those robes on the wall.
Across the street from the Civil Rights Museum is the 16th St Baptist Church. This church became famous when a terrorist planted a bomb and set it off during a Youth Day at the church, killing four teenage girls. Much like the violence in Selma on Bloody Sunday, this horrific act catalyzed movement, with a growing number of white people essentially saying “we don’t like Black people voting and stuff, but we don’t want kids to be blown up in church even more.” The church has a very well-done museum in the basement, and there’s a Spike Lee documentary about it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebuKaY0KIbI ).
Kitty corner from the church is a park where Bull Connor, the violent racist bully in charge of “public safety” would have his officers and firefighters meet marchers coming from the church with billy clubs, vicious dogs, and fire hoses. The park is filled with some amazing sculpture designed to put you in the shoes of the people who were brutally attacked over and over.
Earlier in this essay, I talked about community building. Here’s a simple illustration of that. The first night, I was invited along with four other colleagues to a bar near the hotel to attempt to come down from that first day. The second night, we picked up some wine and met in the hotel lobby, and this time there weren’t 5 of us, there were 10 or so. The third night, there were about 15 (out of the 20 of us).
I’m running out of emotional energy here, but I did want to talk a little about the issue that I mentioned earlier – Mass Incarceration. Starting in the 1970’s, conservatives set about changing drug laws in order to imprison more Black and Brown people (in their own words – this was the explicit intent). Over the last 40 years, we have seen a 500% increase in the number of people in prison, and the prison population skews heavily towards non-white people. As of 2001, roughly 1 in 17 white men will spend some time in prison, but 1 in 3 Black men will. For women, it’s 1 in 111 white women and 1 in 18 Black women. This has been fueled, in part, by the growth of the for-profit prison industry which incentivizes politicians for creating laws that put and keep more people in prison. Not only is this intentional incarceration of non-white people a moral wrong and a sign of the racial biases throughout our “justice” system, but it leads to an even greater wrong.
When the 13th Amendment was ratified, it outlawed slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” That’s a very big “except.” In most states, prisoners who work are paid (a whopping 63 cents per hour on average), but in eight, they are paid nothing (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas). Prisoners pay fees and purchase things (such as tampons) with their “wages.” And to earn this money, they are put to work maintaining the prison, dangerous jobs (like fighting forest fires), and, in a particularly terrible way, through “convict leasing.” Businesses can pay prisons to “lease” their prisoners, who, remember, are working for next-to-nothing. Some businesses even build facilities *on prison grounds* so they can have ready access to their labor.
What does this mean? Recall that this country was founded by white people who essentially immediately began imprisoning Black people and making a profit on their labor. What is happening in prisons today is the same thing. We created laws and systems which disproportionately imprison Black and Brown people and then, because of this massively important clause in the 13th Amendment, white people can use these imprisoned people to increase their profits.
I don’t know what I’m going to do about that, but that has to end. I wasn’t here when Black people were kidnapped and enslaved and I wasn’t here when Jim Crow laws and domestic terrorism in the form of lynching punished an entire race but I am here now. Those can’t be my fights, but this can.
I am going to stop here, but please reach out to me with reactions, thoughts, and questions.