As we left our motel around nine in the morning, I knew rain was near because the air was familiarly humid and dank and close. Because of that forecast, we’d decided to visit the outdoor Memorial first and the indoor Museum later, but the woman who sold us tickets urged us to reverse our schedule. A group of 400 was to arrive in half an hour–half to go to each exhibit–so she promised us time in the museum with very few other guests, so we stayed at the Museum site. Whereas the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. is encyclopedic in scope, this one has a single focus–everything in it is about the enormous number of lynchings that have taken place in this country–4,000 and counting. What that means is the depth of research is overwhelming in detail. One whole room is made up of long gray strips at the bottom of each is a white panel on which is written the names of victims of this barbaric behavior. The panels also have a short entry detailing why each person was lynched. We could have spent an entire morning just moving from strip to strip, absorbing how absurd these incidents were and taking in just how heinous and inhumane each was. I decided to read just a few since there was no time to concentrate on this room because there were many other rooms I wanted to visit. One of mine listed three names–two women and one man–all of whom were servants in some white person’s home. They were hanged because their employers accused the servants of poisoning them. Of course the white people were fine a few days after their accusation. They probably just ate something that gave them momentary food poisoning, but that caused the legally sanctioned deaths three other human beings.
As my friend and I had spoken about what we might see in this museum, we wondered about photographic evidence since it seemed unlikely that people would take photographs of such horrible examples of white racism. Well, that was naïve. Like the Nazis who photographed life in the concentration camps with great alacrity, white Southerners seemed fascinated with recording for posterity the actual events at which blacks were lynched or burned or shot or all of the above in sequence. While many of these photographs are of angry white men in the act of killing someone, others show crowds of people, often dressed up as if for church or a party. Mothers are there with children and picnic baskets and parasols to protect them from the Southern sun. The lynching has to have been advertised to bring so many to the location outside jails and courthouses as well as in open fields or protected woodland sites. Standing in front of so many pictures made me have to face just how callous these atrocities were. Angry bigoted whites had no need to conduct their torturous deeds in seclusion or under the cloak at night. And newspaper write-ups often told us that a given black person had been dragged from the local jail house, leaving little doubt about the tacit support from so-called law-enforcement officers or sheriffs. These newspaper accounts seem excited, even proud, to tell readers how many people attended and how much satisfaction everyone seemed to glean from watching and participating in what they called “justice.”
One of the most moving rooms in the Museum is the one containing the many jars of soil and other material dug from official lynching sites. These jars occupy an entire wall and, if they were not evidence of such horror, they would be beautiful since soil comes in myriad shadings. Some part of me that was detached from the reality of what is inside them had a few moments of thinking this wall was like some of Louise Nevelson’s or George Morrison’s compositions made of strips of wood in so many similar shadings. That response was quickly replaced by a feeling of being in sacred space, since inside each glass receptacle were remains of some human being’s DNA, lovingly or respectfully or, perhaps even guiltily, salvaged from where a black person or persons lost their lives to satisfy a crazed mob’s hysterical need to assert absolute power over a fellow human being. In order to have a jar included in this display, the locale involved has to demonstrate to the staff of the project that the community is doing something right now to assist some non-white group in their midst, so the wall also reminds viewers that in 2019 we still discriminate against some group we have defined as “other.”
The part of the Museum exhibits that moved us the most, however, was a video in which several people who were filling a jar allowed camera people to film them. I will never forget two such vignettes. One involved an older black heterosexual couple, the other a long black man. The couple were dressed in such a way to suggest that they were solidly middle class. She sat on some grass while he was scooping dirt and grass bits with a trowel. When the jar was filled and the lid screwed on, he said “Let’s say a little prayer.” His words were few and heart-felt before he handed the jar to her. Clearly it was important for each of them to hold the precious material while they prayed. She spoke more personally about the person being honored–clearly she was a distant relative and wanted to verbalize that connection. The other subject was a middle-aged black man recently released from prison where he’d been serving a sentence that turned out to be all wrong. DNA had proven that he was innocent–something he’d been saying all along. His jar had been filled with soil and other natural material gathered from a shoulder of a two-lane road that had no traffic on it during the filming. He held his filled jar close to his chest, rubbed his hand over its lid and said how glad he was to have his relative’s remains in the special jar. He also said “I’m just glad I can take you to someplace where you’ll be respected and honored—and not just leave you on the side of a road somewhere.” Both these filmings make clear just how sacred that space is in the Museum and how powerful is the act of filling each one by whomever has claimed that person as their own.
After about half an hour, just as our museum guide had said, a large group of black women and men began to fill the rooms where my friend and I were slowly making our way through informative and powerful displays. Usually I can quickly feel oppressed in such situations, but not that morning. I noticed that many of the lanyards around the men’s necks had names beginning with “Rev.” indicating that they were ministers of some sort. My friend finally asked one of the women what group they represented, and we found out that all 400 were members of a national faith-based group working to promote justice for current black people and another racial or ethnic minorities. They’d organized a conference to share their efforts, and people from all across this country were in attendance. The conference was being held at a hotel across the street from the Museum and that day focused on the group’s visiting both the facilities built through the heroic efforts of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) based in Montgomery. Rather than feeling oppressed by all those bodies occupying the same relatively small space with me, I felt surrounded by people intent upon translating their belief system into concrete healing action. It felt comforting to move among them as we all were trying to absorb the results of ten years of research by the staff of the EJI and then figure out what to do with what we were facing about the depths to which white supremacists had gone and still can go to insure their position of ascendancy over people of color.
After about two hours inside this storehouse of hard data and deep emotion, my friend and I left for lunch. Then we’d brave the humid afternoon and go to the Memorial for Peace and Justice a mile or so from the downtown Museum. How did I feel as we exited? Ashamed of my fellow white people and deeply grateful to Mr. Stevenson and his staff for helping me face and move past that shame so that I can actively work against current manifestations of that same impulse to eradicate through any means available people somehow deemed to be outside some mythical definition of human being.