I made a visit to the Deep South in 2007, when I participated in the “Sojourn to the Past,” a bus tour of Civil Rights landmarks for high school students. We visited museums and monuments in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee. We met and heard from leaders like the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Congressman John Lewis, members of the Little Rock Nine, and investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell. While walking around downtown Atlanta near the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park, it came to me how little I knew about that part of the country, and I resolved to spend time living and working there. I'm so glad to have followed through with that resolution.
Wayne & I have revisited a number of the museums and sites I had seen on the Sojourn trip: Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, the graves of Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King in Atlanta. New educational opportunities have emerged since my first visit: Whitney Plantation near New Orleans, the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, the Tubman Museum in Macon. I included photos from many of these places in previous blog posts. With every visit, my understanding of our country's history deepened. Just before I left last spring, the Equal Justice Initiative officially opened a new opportunity for growth and learning, one that promises to transform awareness of our history in powerful and challenging ways. It was a great blessing for me to be present for some of the opening events, and I encourage everyone who has the means to make a pilgrimage to Montgomery.
The Legacy Museum, “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration,” is housed in a building formerly used to warehouse enslaved Black people, near the dock and railway station where they were trafficked throughout the nineteenth century. Photos are not permitted inside, where exhibits include jars of soil collected for known sites of lynchings throughout the country. Visitors also listen to recorded messages from incarcerated people as though on a telephone call.
We found the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, about a mile away from the Museum, profoundly moving. It honors victims of racial terror from all over the country, with steel columns representing individual counties. Names are included of victims documented in at least two sources—it seems clear that countless others have gone undocumented.
The six-acre site features monuments for each county where lynchings took place, engraved with the names of victims like those within the memorial structure. The EJI invites communities to claim these monuments and create their own local memorials. As the monuments are distributed throughout the country, may the rising awareness of this cruel and tragic history bring new and greater urgency to the work for social and cultural changes we long for and so desperately need.
This poem, which she wrote for the occasion, was read by Elizabeth Alexander at the opening ceremony, and is posted at the Memorial:
The wind brings your names.
We will never dissever your names
nor your shadows beneath each branch and tree.
The truth comes in on the wind, is carried by water.
There is such a thing as the truth. Tell us
how you got over. Say, Soul look back in wonder.
Your names were never lost,
each name a holy word.
The rocks cry out—
call out each name to sanctify this place.
Sounds in human voices, silver or soil,
a moan, a sorrow song,
a keen, a cackle, harmony,
a hymnal, handbook, chart,
a sacred text, a stomp, an exhortation.
Ancestors, you will find us still in cages,
despised and disciplined.
You will find us still mis-named.
Here you will find us despite.
You will not find us extinct.
You will find us here memoried and storied.
You will find us here mighty.
You will find us here divine.
You will find us where you left us, but not as you left us.
Here you endure and are luminous.
You are not lost to us.
The wind carries sorrows, sighs, and shouts.
The wind brings everything. Nothing is lost.