Don Follis | Memorial, museum evoke painful memories

Don Follis | Memorial, museum evoke painful memories

Back in the day, when I was a theology student, one of my professors handed the students an essay by a Southern white preacher from the mid-1800s arguing that the Bible clearly justified slavery. Our assignment was to read the essay and write a one-page response.

That incident came to mind last week when my wife and I toured the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. It opened to the public in late April on a 6-acre site overlooking the Alabama Capitol.

The memorial is dedicated to the thousands of victims of white supremacy. Walking through the memorial brings you face to face with one of America's least recognized atrocities: the killing of more than 4,000 African-American men, women and children who were lynched between 1877 and 1950 in a decades-long campaign of racial terror, and leading in part, to the great migration from 1915 to 1940 of millions of African-Americans from the rural South to the cities in the urban north.

The memorial features a walkway with 800 rust-colored steel columns hanging from a roof, one for each county in the United States where a lynching took place. Etched in each column is the name of an American county and the names and dates of those who were lynched.

As you enter the walkway, the columns meet you at eye level. They look like headstones that lynching victims rarely were given. Then the floor of the memorial steadily descends, and by the end, the steel columns are dangling above you. You feel like you are in the position of a curious spectator like you see in the old photographs of public lynchings.

If seeing the hundreds of hanging columns is not sobering enough, the circumstances of some of the individual lynchings are described on the walls as you walk through the columns. "Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying the photograph of a white woman." "Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for 'walking behind the wife of his white employer.'" "Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband's lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground."

The memorial is part of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a private, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. In making the memorial, attorneys in EJI spent years tracking down information on where lynchings occurred along with the names of those killed. The memorial names many African-Americans for the very first time.

Just down the hill from the memorial is the newly-opened Legacy Museum in the center of Montgomery's downtown district. A companion to the memorial, the museum is located on the site of a former warehouse where enslaved people were once imprisoned. Information at the memorial and the museum clearly indicates that cities like Montgomery were shaped by slavery, giving birth to a narrative of racial difference that haunts America to this day.

The Legacy Museum has few artifacts. Instead, it is more a presentation showing firsthand accounts and documents of how the slavery system evolved from the family-shattering domestic slave trade, to the terror of decades of lynchings, to the suffocating segregation of Jim Crow, to current American prison incarceration, where 37 percent of the prison population is comprised of African-Americans, in a country where African-Americans make up 15 percent of the total population.

A block from the Legacy Museum is the spot where in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in the "colored section" to a white passenger after the white section was filled. And just three blocks from there is the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the church served by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from 1954 to 1960.

When we were standing outside the church building, just a block from the Alabama Capitol and next to the Alabama Supreme Court Building, an African-American mother told her children they would tour the Dexter Avenue church the next day. They would see how the Montgomery bus boycott was organized right inside the church that King led, leading to a 1956 Supreme Court decision making segregation on buses unconstitutional, and ending the 13-month Montgomery bus boycott. The court decision was a huge impetus to the civil rights movement, making Montgomery the epicenter of a societal shift that gave change to the entire nation.

Later that evening, my wife and I walked along the Alabama River that skirts the north side of downtown Montgomery. We talked about how sobered we felt at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Indeed, the book of Ecclesiastes says it is better to attend a funeral than a party because everyone dies and the living should take note of this. Walking through the memorial felt much more like attending a funeral than a party.

Talking about those painful emotions, we came upon an African-American wedding reception spread out along the Montgomery riverfront. There was music and making merry and joy all around. We smiled and said, "And it's good to attend parties, too."

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via blog.pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at donscolumn@gmail.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).

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