Midsummer, in an aging subcompact rental car, because that was all we could get, my husband and I took a civil rights tour through the Deep South. With the air-conditioning blasting, we drove to Memphis, Montgomery, Selma and Atlanta, making an impromptu stop in Charlottesville the day after the statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson came down. At a time when race is a centerpiece of the American conversation—and a specter looming behind political divisions—this trip, a pilgrimage really, is a necessity for all American Jews. Here is my report from one part of our journey that should not be missed.
When we pulled into Montgomery, Alabama, the sun had long set. Our hotel was downtown and as soon as we unloaded our bags, we ventured back into the brightly lit streets. Just a few feet from the door of the hotel stood a historic marker that got right to the point: Brutal history had taken place here. We were standing in the heart of the old slave-market district, where enslaved people were auctioned at nearby Court Square and other locations. In 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was elected president and the Southern states seceded, Montgomery had more slave markets than churches or hotels.
Another marker informed us that the multistory red brick buildings surrounding us had been warehouses where people were imprisoned before they were sold alongside horses, cattle, pigs and cotton bales. They were also kept in pens, depots and jails. The warehouses have been converted into flourishing restaurants, hotels and offices. A few dining and drinking establishments were open late, and the voices of tourists eating and drinking at sidewalk tables pierced the warm July night. From one club, the heavy wail of blues spilled out. To the beat of the bass, my husband and I were pulled from historic marker to marker as if they were magnets. We ended up a few short blocks away, at the port on the Alabama River where steamships once unloaded the people to be sold in the markets.
The next morning we walked a few doors down from our hotel, past the Hank Williams museum (the country singer was born in a nearby town and launched his career in Montgomery), through an alley to what was once a slave warehouse. Today it is the Legacy Museum, which, along with the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, was the reason for our visit to Montgomery.
Like the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, this is not a classic artifact-driven institution; it is propelled by storytelling. We all know the contours of that story: the evolution of slavery in the South, fed by the transatlantic slave trade. Ships arriving in ports stretching from New York City to Galveston, Texas, delivering millions of kidnapped and shackled Africans to American shores (making them among our nation’s earliest arrivals). The burgeoning of the domestic slave trade once the importation of slaves was banned in 1808 (although smuggling persisted). An estimated one million Blacks were forcibly transferred from the upper South to the lower South between 1810 and 1860 by white plantation owners, hungry to exploit free labor to pick cotton to feed their newfangled cotton gins.
By 1830, Montgomery had become one of the most important and conspicuous
slave-trading centers in the United States, thanks to the navigable Alabama River and a new railroad that transported humans like cattle, long before the Nazis. But the city is just the jumping-off point for the bigger story: the lasting legacy of slavery, hence the name of the museum. The abrupt end of Reconstruction in 1877 returned control of Southern state governments to former Confederates, ushering in nearly a century of cruel and terrorizing Jim Crow laws. The staggering numbers of people affected are splashed across the walls and floors of the museum so they cannot be missed:
“Nine million terrorized.
Ten million segregated.
Eight million under criminal control.”
The museum connects the dots from slavery to the way Black men today are automatically presumed guilty and/or dangerous, and then disproportionately convicted of crimes and imprisoned. Making this connection is the purpose of the museum, which was founded by Bryan Stevenson and his Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization established in 1989 to provide legal assistance to men and women on Alabama’s Death Row. It is also the personal mission of Stevenson, a Harvard-trained lawyer and MacArthur Fellow. One of Stevenson’s most famous exonerations was of Walter McMillian, a Black man who was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in 1988 for the murder of a young white woman in Monroeville, Alabama. (Stevenson tells McMillian’s story, along with those of other EJI clients, in his bestselling 2014 memoir, Just Mercy, which was made into a 2019 film of the same name.) In 2008, after spending nearly three grueling decades representing those whom justice had eluded, the EJI decided to branch out from the law and start its Race and Poverty Project, a public education campaign to reframe the narrative about modern criminal justice issues by “infusing it with racial history.”
The museum does this masterfully. I moved through the masked crowd, reading the accounts of slaves, hearing recorded voices of the wrongly incarcerated and generally being confronted by the ugliness of American racism. At one point, I bumped into my husband at the collection of “whites only” signs, the kind that he saw as a young man in Biloxi, Mississippi when, in the mid-1960s, he arrived for U.S. Air Force electronics training from his hometown of Chicago. He has never gotten them out of his mind. Among the detritus of this past are replicas of signs such as:
“No Negroes or apes allowed in this building.”
“Whites only, maids in uniform accepted.”
“Negroes must move to the back of the bus.”
“Whites only within city limits after dark.”
But it was the exhibits on lynching that stopped my breath. These gruesome and ritualistic terror killings, which some white people brought their children to watch, still echo through time, and the noose remains a potent symbol of terror. EJI researchers spent six years scouring records to document more than 4,000 people who were lynched between 1877 and 1950 in 12 of what EJI labels the “most active” states—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Lynchings were not limited to the South: They also occurred in states such as California and Illinois, and I recently learned of two that had taken place within a few miles of the house in New Jersey where I grew up.
Rake me over the coals, but American slavery,the failure of Reconstruction and the centuries of racial injustice they wreaked, including killings and persecution, deserve as much discussion in the American Jewish community as killings and persecution of Jews—including the Holocaust.
In 2015, EJI volunteers began traveling to unmarked lynching sites to collect soil. The results of their work are nearly 300 large glass jars filled with yellowish brown, reddish orange, black, brown and gray hues, with textures from fine to pebbly, part of the group’s Community Remembrance Project exhibit. When I first approached, they looked like jars of spices—turmeric and paprika and black pepper. Each container is labeled with the name of a victim of lynching, such as Henry Patterson, who was murdered in 1926 in LaBelle, Florida for asking a white woman for a drink of water, and Elizabeth Larson, killed in 1933 for reprimanding white children who threw rocks at her. The project reminded me of the work that French Catholic priest Patrick Desbois has done in the killing fields of Eastern Europe, finding and marking the mass graves of unidentified Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust.
I had little idea of what would be in store when we boarded the shuttle to EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, often called the Lynching Memorial, about a mile away. The six-acre campus was erected on land that was previously the site of run-down public housing. Entering, we were confronted with a stunning life-size sculpture of terrified enslaved men and women chained together; among them is a mother clutching a child and reaching toward a man who remains unbowed. It was created by Ghanaian sculptor Kwame Akoto-Bamfo in memory of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade. From there we followed a curving path to a large structure of somber eloquence. Once inside, we were surrounded by rectangular six-foot-tall Corten steel slabs, each engraved with the name of a U.S. county where Blacks were lynched. There are 800 of these weathered, rust-colored monuments.They rest at ground level at first, but as the floor descends, they rise, suspended from above.
Once the monuments are overhead, a new element is introduced: eye-level wall plaques with the names of people who were lynched, each listing the innocent action that led to their murder. I read these plaques one after another until I was heartsick. Looking up, the monuments, like unmoving pendulums, reminded me of the hangings they represent. No image of an actual lynching is shown at the memorial, but they were constantly in my mind’s eye.
The intensity of the experience made me feel alone, but I was not. My husband and a handful of other visitors were nearby, equally emotionally dwarfed by the horror of what humans can do to one another. The immensity of the crime echoes what one feels at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany (also consisting of large, although differently shaped blocks), but it was proprioceptive deja vu of a day I spent at the Belzec Memorial in the small eastern Poland town of the same name that shook me. That memorial, which I visited several years ago, opened in 2004 on the site of the Nazi extermination camp there. A few train stops away from three towns where my ancestors lived, the camp was located next to the tracks for obvious reasons.
Not everyone from those towns, Rawa Ruska, Lvov and Bialy Kamien, was killed at Belzec—many were shot in cold blood in ghettos beforehand—but it is likely that some of my great-great-grandparents, great-great-aunts and great-great-uncles and their families were murdered there. A trench through the memorial slopes down through rock and rebar, recalling a tube prisoners had to pass through on their march to the gas chamber. Additionally, the names of the towns from which Jews were deported to Bełzec are cast in iron.
The Legacy Museum is located steps away from what was one of the most active slave auction sites in America. The museum explores the consequences of enslavement, mob violence and Jim Crow laws. (Photo credit: Equal Justice Initiative / Human Pictures)
A pilgrimage to this haunting place—where the terror and pain of individuals who had no chance against those in power are remembered—should be a requirement for all American citizens.
I was shivering in the heat by the time my husband and I left the main memorial structure. Outside is a “memory bank” with duplicates of the steel monoliths inside, meant to be placed in the counties whose names are inscribed on them, but only after active community remembrance work has been done. EJI’s hope is that the placement of these monuments will “help transform our national landscape into a more honest reflection of the history of America and reflect a community’s ongoing commitment to truth-telling and racial justice.” According to EJI, hundreds of communities have already expressed interest in going through the process required to claim them, and several dozen communities will be receiving monuments next year.
The path then winds by a glade in memory of the journalist and early civil rights activist Ida B. Wells. Just past is a series of outsize sculptures by journalist and sculptor Dana King that are dedicated to the women who sustained the Montgomery bus boycott. In another striking piece called “Raise Up,” the heads and arms of Black people emerge from concrete. They could be rising up, putting their “hands up” or simply flailing, as if they are drowning. Created by conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, the work is meant to represent contemporary issues of police violence and racism embedded in the criminal justice system. (I later read that EJI is also behind the markers recounting the history of slavery in downtown Montgomery; initially unwanted by the city, they are now guideposts for a growing number of visitors.)
A pilgrimage to this haunting place—where the terror and pain of individuals who had no chance against those in power are remembered—should be a requirement for all American citizens. Rake me over the coals, but American slavery, the failure of Reconstruction and the centuries of racial injustice they wreaked, including murders and persecution, deserve as much discussion in the American Jewish community as killings and persecution of Jews—including the Holocaust. It is a story to which we, as Americans, no matter when we arrived on these shores, must all bear witness.