One of my first thoughts when I arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, and encountered the spring heat was this: How did enslaved men, women and children endure day after day? It was an odd thought, given that I’m a Southerner, and heat, certainly not spring heat, wouldn’t ordinarily be overwhelming, nor would it lead to thoughts of enslavement. But here, history is heavy, it’s immediate, and it’s everywhere. And the history that is most on display in obvious and not-so-obvious ways is deeply tied to slavery and its enduring aftermath.
The truth has been hidden and untold for far too long and now the truth shall be told and not sold!
The streets here are named for Confederate generals. The state flag the St. Andrew’s crimson cross on a field of white revokes a Confederate flag. There’s a star at the Alabama State Capitol on the spot where Jefferson Davis became President of the Confederate States. Not a block away, a young Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists planned the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott from his basement office at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. On the same street, slave traders once sold women, men and children alongside cows at bustling slave depots.
New versus old in Montgomery
The Equal Justice Initiative opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice on April 26 near its headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama. Visitors see Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s sculpture when they walk into the memorial. It is Alabama’s version of progress, featuring a revitalized downtown that has helped put this city on The New York Times list of top destinations to visit in 2018.
I get into a cab and ask the older, black woman driving me how she likes this new Montgomery. For her, the new Montgomery can’t eclipse the old. She has a story at the ready, recounting how her father, a veteran, tried to buy a house on a certain block. The local newspaper covered his aspiration with a warning:
“Block Going Black. That was in 1970,” she said.
The memorial captures the brutality and the scale of lynchings throughout the South, where more than 4,000 black men, women and children, died at the hands of white mobs between 1877 and 1950. Most were in response to perceived infractions walking behind a white woman, attempting to quit a job, reporting a crime or organizing sharecroppers.
Naming the victims
Their findings yielded a roll call of names that have never had a place in the public memory or the public accounting of what happened:
General Lee, lynched in 1904, for knocking on a white woman’s door in Reevesville, South Carolina.
Sam Cates, lynched in 1917, for “annoying white girls” in England, Arkansas.
Jesse Thornton, lynched in 1940, for failing to address a police officer as “mister,” in Luverne, Alabama.
“I hope it will be sobering but ultimately, inspiring,” Stevenson said. “I hope people will feel like they’ve been deceived a little by the history they’ve been taught and that they need to recover from that. Truth and reconciliation work is always hard. It’s challenging, but if we have the courage to tell the truth and to hear the truth, things happen.”
A challenge to communities
Seeing the suffering and strength
Black bodies rising up
A power in those who endured
“There is power in those who endured slavery. There is a strength in those who found a way to survive in these spaces, despite the threat of violence, despite the threat of terror and violence,” Stevenson said.
“There is a dignity and a grace that comes with having to navigate segregation year in, year out. And I feel like, I’ve got to wrap my arms around that and use it to persuade others that we can do better.”