What Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative have built in Montgomery is unlike any other civil rights project I know of. A good friend and I flew from Minneapolis about a month ago to see both the indoor Museum and the outdoor Memorial to the astounding number of lynchings executed all over this country. Upon my return, I was moved to write a blog much like I did after spending two intense days at the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Each time I’ve sat down to begin that blog, however, I have burst into tears. So I’ve told myself I just need more distance from the actual event. Recently, however, the friend with whom I went to Montgomery helped me figure out another reason I may have been unable to write. As a child growing up in Fairfield, AL, a near suburb of Birmingham, in the 1940s and 50s, I was surrounded by blatant racist speech and behavior. I recall with frightening vividness waking in the night when I was about six to see flames out my bedroom window. When I asked my parents the next morning about what I’d seen, they just said it was a fire in “Colored Town.” Haunted by the angry flames that must be burning down people’s houses, I remember asking my father, who read the Birmingham News every day, to tell me what the paper said about this frightening event. There never was a word written about that fire. When I got to junior high school, I often cut through a black neighborhood adjacent to our house because it was quicker than going in the white part of town, and because there was a little store I ducked into many mornings to get a handful of hard candy from the ever-so-friendly older black man who ran it. I saw white school mates stomp on beautiful flowers growing in the black people’s front yards or throw rocks or sticks onto their porches. I also heard them shout horrible epithets at the adults sitting on those porches in the early morning, talking with friends. In high school, I heard boys snicker often at their lockers about hearing of another “coon” pulled out of a nearby river or about a black body found by their dads who hunted in the woods on a weekend.
Occasionally the newspaper did include photographs of white people dressed in their Sunday best, going to or coming from a hanging of a black person whom the paper said had committed some heinous crime–usually having to do with a white woman and having distinctly sexual overtones though at that time nothing explicit could be printed in the paper. Because each of these articles included serious words about law and order or getting justice for the white victims, and because no counter-narrative was ever offered to me, I silently assimilated the images and explanations. While these atrocious moments seemed somehow “wrong” to me, I had no language with which to speak about them. And I came to intuit that asking my mother or father why those boys did or said such nasty things to “Negroes” ended in mutterings or attempts to distract me so I’d shut up about such things. So the impressions just accumulated over the years. Even as an adult, I didn’t speak about them very often with friends, but seeing the several hundred bronze rectangles hanging in the Memorial building as my friend and I walked toward them brought it all back, I believe. At one point, we drove across what a sign told me was the Coosa River and I felt a coldness that had nothing to do with the thermometer. My father spent many a weekend with his friend Mr. Kelton fishing the Coosa River. Though he seldom brought home any fish for my mother to cook, it now haunts me to consider that he might well have snagged one of the nameless bodies of black youths. After all, those high school boys’ lewd narrative accounts often involved dragging bodies of blacks out of nearby waterways.
James Baldwin once said that not everything that is faced can be healed, but that nothing can be healed until it is faced. It’s entirely understandable that I had no language with which to handle white atrocities against black people as I was growing up. I can no longer, however, retreat into prolonged silence by telling myself I just need time to gain “distance” before writing about what I experienced in Mr. Stevenson’s created spaces. So I will soon write Part 2 about my visit to Montgomery, Alabama, that has forced me to face the fact of thousands of lynchings of innocent black people by white people who acted as we did because we could do so with impunity.