Squeezing Light Out of Dark in Montgomery, Alabama

EJI Peace and Justice Memorial, Montgomery

For the last few years, Bryan and I have been lucky enough to travel to some amazing places around the world. But neither of us have traveled much in the US and admittedly don’t know a lot about American history, so we decided that 2018 would be the year of US travel.

Though police brutality against predominantly young African American men and women has been happening ever since the police force was created in this country, it sadly hasn’t been part of the collective consciousness until pretty recently. While I can’t claim to know what it’s like to be black in this country, I do have a sense of what it’s like to be the descendant of historically marginalized communities, since our families are Jewish and Japanese-American. Our communities know the pain of being unjustly persecuted against and seen as less than. 

 Visiting the Equal Justice Initiative's National Memorial for Peace & Justice

Visiting the Equal Justice Initiative's National Memorial for Peace & Justice

Three years ago, we were invited to an annual dinner for Facing History and Ourselves. The keynote speaker was Bryan Stevenson, an African American criminal justice attorney in Montgomery, Alabama. We were so moved and inspired by his talk that we got his book, Just Mercy. In it he tells the stories of clients who are part of our broken criminal justice system. One story I can't get out of my head is the story of a woman who, because of the three strikes rule, is now spending life in prison for a bounced check. He also talks about racial bias, and how our school systems are biased against black and brown students, who end up in the criminal justice system as part of the "school to prison pipeline". Did you know that prisons are for-profit entities, which make more money if more people are in them? I didn't. In the book, Mr. Stevenson wrote about launching the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), and his dreams to create a memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama; we vowed to visit one day.

Then in March of this year, everyone from The New York Times to Architectural Digest wrote about the EJI's museum and memorial openings. It was time for our trip to Montgomery. So we planned a trip the following month and began making plans to visit the deep South.

 Each steel monument represents a county in which racial terror lynchings were ritualistically performed. They were spectator events; white families would send postcards with photos of lynchings in their town to family members. 

Each steel monument represents a county in which racial terror lynchings were ritualistically performed. They were spectator events; white families would send postcards with photos of lynchings in their town to family members. 

 Sculpture by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo of enslaved African men and women at the National Peace and Justice Memorial. This heartbreaking piece is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Sculpture by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo of enslaved African men and women at the National Peace and Justice Memorial. This heartbreaking piece is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

 Upon entering the space, the steel monuments are installed on the ground. As you walk further downhill though the space, the memorials hang above you, a chilling reminder of the inhumane racial terror lynchings of more than 4,000 African American men and women. 

Upon entering the space, the steel monuments are installed on the ground. As you walk further downhill though the space, the memorials hang above you, a chilling reminder of the inhumane racial terror lynchings of more than 4,000 African American men and women. 

William Brooks was lynched in Palestine, Arkansas, in 1894 for asking to marry his white employer’s daughter.
A black man was lynched in Millersburg, Ohio, in 1892 for ‘standing around’ in a white neighborhood.
Calvin Kimblern was lynched by a mob of at least 3,000 people in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1900.
After Calvin Mike voted in Calhoun County, Georgia, in 1884, a white mob attacked and burned his home, lynching his elderly mother and his two young daughters, Emma and Lillie.
 Duplicates of the monuments lie outside like coffins, waiting to be claimed and acknowledged by the counties in which the lynchings took place. Over time, it will be telling to see what counties claim the monuments, and which ones don't.

Duplicates of the monuments lie outside like coffins, waiting to be claimed and acknowledged by the counties in which the lynchings took place. Over time, it will be telling to see what counties claim the monuments, and which ones don't.

After visiting the EJI's museum and memorial in Montgomery, I’m convinced that if more Americans visit, we’ll at least be able to start having open conversations with each other about bias, race and our shared history as Americans. Simply put, nothing compares to visiting the city where slavery, segregation and racism started, and learning about it firsthand. Thankfully, EJI has done an amazing job of preserving this history in a way that is so visceral, I left a different person. 

Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum.jpg
 The Equal Justice Initiative's Legacy Museum is located on the site of a former slave warehouse and follows history “from enslavement to mass incarceration.” In the museum, we learn that slavery never ended- it just evolved into the mass incarceration today of predominantly African American and Hispanic people in our for-profit federal and state prisons.

The Equal Justice Initiative's Legacy Museum is located on the site of a former slave warehouse and follows history “from enslavement to mass incarceration.” In the museum, we learn that slavery never ended- it just evolved into the mass incarceration today of predominantly African American and Hispanic people in our for-profit federal and state prisons.

If we have the courage and tenacity of our forebears, who stood firmly like a rock against the lash of slavery, we shall find a way to do for ours one day what they did for theirs.
— Mary McLeod Bethune
 The back of the museum pays tribute to Civil Rights activists throughout history, including Japanese-American activist Fred Korematsu.

The back of the museum pays tribute to Civil Rights activists throughout history, including Japanese-American activist Fred Korematsu.

The history of racism in this country needs to be confronted. We have to face the truth of what happened: Our country kidnapped Africans from their home countries, separated them from their families and forced them into slavery. If we can't face this, we're never going to understand the larger system that's at play: Slavery, then Jim Crow (state-mandated segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains) followed by Brown vs. Board of Education (the Supreme Court case which eventually declared school segregation to be unconstitutional), and present-day incarceration through the prison system, police brutality and not holding officers accountable for killing unarmed young people of color. 

The wealth of the United States was built on the backs of slaves. There's continued wealth being built on the backs of people of color in our for-profit prison system. And because the need is economic, the culture feeds into it: People of color are portrayed as being less than and dehumanized. That's what links all of our experiences together: Forcible incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, Latin Americans at our borders being incarcerated for seeking asylum, banning Muslims and Muslim Americans entry into the US (and the racist rhetoric behind it), young unarmed African Americans being killed or unjustly, mindlessly thrown into the prison system. All are under the guise of "public safety". This is how our country's economy survives. This is a history and truth we all share as Americans, a history we must confront if we are ever to begin healing, and to ensure a just and safe future for the generations to come. As Marcus Garvey says, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, culture, is like a tree without roots.”

 Historic colored water fountain sign at Kress on Dexter. S.H. Kress Co. was a department store chain. Whites were allowed to use the front entrance, while blacks had to enter through the back so they wouldn't be seen by white clientele entering the store. The worlds "colored" and "white", literally etched in stone, serve as a reminder and acknowledgement of the building's segregated past. 

Historic colored water fountain sign at Kress on Dexter. S.H. Kress Co. was a department store chain. Whites were allowed to use the front entrance, while blacks had to enter through the back so they wouldn't be seen by white clientele entering the store. The worlds "colored" and "white", literally etched in stone, serve as a reminder and acknowledgement of the building's segregated past. 

 Court Square Fountain, built on an artesian well, originally used by the native tribes. The fountain was the center of the slave trade, where enslaved Africans (who had been kidnapped from their home countries) were chained together and paraded up the street to be sold at this fountain. 

Court Square Fountain, built on an artesian well, originally used by the native tribes. The fountain was the center of the slave trade, where enslaved Africans (who had been kidnapped from their home countries) were chained together and paraded up the street to be sold at this fountain. 

 Confederate monument on the steps of the Alabama State Capital building.

Confederate monument on the steps of the Alabama State Capital building.

Magnolia.jpg