On a hillside in Montgomery, Alabama, there stands a monument that exists to expose to the world the cruel and inhumane behavior that one group of people can perpetrate on another group. This is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which in the words of its founder is a “sacred space for truth-telling and reflection about racial terror in America and its legacy.”
My own words cannot capture the context of this place as clearly as this text from the entrance to the Memorial:
Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the structure of the memorial itself is part of the experience. It is laid out in a rectangle, with four sides to walk through, one by one. The rusted steel boxes are the shape and size of a coffin, one for each county in the United States where a lynching took place. The names and dates of each Black person lynched in that county are cut into the steel below the name and state of the county.
When I first entered the monument, I was walking among the markers. Reading each name became impossible once I saw how many names there were. I read places and dates, then let the sheer number of names wash over and through me.
As I turned the first corner, the floor sloped down gradually on that second side.
What was once eye level, as tall as me, rose up, and I had to look up slightly, then more, to see the names and dates on each marker.
The next turn was the hardest. Suddenly, there were hundreds of county coffins high over my head, so many I couldn’t really take it in. I craned my neck to read the county names and that’s when I realized the design was making me stretch my neck in the same way that the act of lynching stretched the necks of so many Black Americans. Tears slid down my cheeks as I stood there looking at the rows and rows and rows of coffin markers and the racial hatred and racial terror they represent. These were names and dates and places in physical form, not dry statistics or words in a book. I was completely overwhelmed.
I noticed a young Black woman reading the long plaques you can see on the walls in the photo above. She would read one, then slowly move to the next one and when she reached the end of the one side, she slowly walked back and started reading the other side. I realized each plaque was someone’s life and death. I couldn’t just walk by those names. I read each one, following her lead, both sides of the walkway. I owed it to each one of those names to recognize they were human beings who had been terrorized and murdered by white people like me.
I went back to the place where I had left off looking up and started reading the county names, one by one, row by row, down dozens fo rows. My neck starting to ache from looking up but I couldn’t let it go. I had to know. And then suddenly, there it was: Christian County, Kentucky.
That’s where my paternal grandfather’s family came from, and there are still small streets and gravestones in the cemetery with the family name. Two of dates were from when they were living there, before they moved out to Arizona. Were they part of a mob that chased down and lynched John Henry Skinner or Willis Griffey? They owned slaves, I heard tell, so they might have been in one of those lynch mobs. It’s a small county, so probably is more accurate than might, I think, as painful as that is to admit.
As I turned to enter the last side of the memorial, words on the wall shed a light of hope amid the darkness of the coffin markers.
As I walked underneath this last section, I could no longer read the names of the individuals, just the counties cut into the bottom of each one. More than 800 markers, more than 4400 names, in this memorial hall.
To see the people represented by this place is to realize how blind hatred and unfounded fear can cause people to do unspeakable things. One group of humans insisted that another group of humans was lesser because of the color of their skin, with political structures all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court backing them up.
I want to believe we are better than that now. But we are not. I see the evidence in the deaths of Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, and Sandra Bland. I see it in Facebook posts espousing hatred of Muslims, in the deaths of children in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol.
I had been reading about civil rights before I visited this memorial. After, I realized I needed to learn about systemic racism and how it affected Black people in America in the past and how it affects them today. And how, as a white person, it has benefitted me. I’ve been oblivious as to how my white skin has given me advantages in every area of my life.
This year, I started the painful, daily, work of recognizing my privilege and my own racism. I know that it is on me, on white people, to do the work of dismantling systemic racism. We are the ones who by our silence have been complicit in white supremacy. If you read this paragraph and think “not me” – well, that was me last year. This year’s me has learned it is me.
This has been one of the hardest posts I’ve written, struggling to capture how it felt to visit this place and then – as the weeks and months passed – how it opened my eyes to things I had not known. I’ve gone back and forth with words and images a half dozen times, and have finally decided that publishing an imperfect essay is better than not publishing anything at all.
If you’re interested in learning more about structural racism and white privilege, I have created an annotated reading list of books that I’ve found enlightening, educational, challenging, and, yes, difficult. All of them are worth the work. And so is justice for all, the pledge every American has said countless times without actually thinking what that really means.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Letter from Birmingham, Alabama Jail
April 16, 1963