Hey, GOP: There’s a museum in Montgomery you really should see


MONTGOMERY – You emerge from the fierce summer sun into a dark forest of rectangular steel columns, row upon row, six or seven feet high, covered in rust the color of dried blood.

It takes a minute to adjust to the dim light. Then you start to see the names written on the columns: Claud Neal, Jackson County, Florida, lynched in 1934 for the alleged rape and murder of a white woman; Joe Coe, Douglas County, Neb., Lynched in 1891 for allegedly assaulting a white child; Emmett Till, Leflore County, Mississippi, lynched in 1955 for flirting with a white woman.

These are just three of the thousands of names written on the 800 columns of the National Peace and Justice Memorial, a place that only opened in 2018 but feels as old and as sacred as Stonehenge, a silent but devastating testimony to how Americans terrorized and murdered other Americans because they wanted to live as full citizens of this country.

As you make your way through the National Memorial, the columns, all bolted to the ceiling, appear to rise from the ground. They are initially at eye level, but the ground gradually descends until the columns hang above your head, a subtle but powerful reminder of the deaths of so many.

As the song says:

“The trees of the south bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swaying in the southern breeze,
Strange fruits hanging from the poplars.

Is it any wonder that the Conservatives do not want this story to be taught in schools?

Refusal of the whites to admit that America was not and is not now a model of virtue, “great” because it is “good”, a nation specially blessed by God, instead of a country with brilliant founding documents which has not yet lived up to its promises or dealt with its painful past.

It may seem strange to find this magnificent uncompromising monument here on a verdant hill here in Montgomery, the first capital of Confederation, with pre-war verandahs and white pillars. You can stand where Jefferson Davis was invested president of the CSA – it is marked with a golden star on the marble steps of the Capitol. You can see a portrait of segregationist Governor George Wallace inside and visit the nearby “First White House of Confederation”, where the myth of the Lost Cause flourishes.

But although Montgomery has long been synonymous with racial hatred, it is also the mother of resistance: the 1955-56 bus boycott and the site of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s first ministry The headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center , the civil rights law firm that pursues white supremacists and stalks hate groups of all stripes, is one block from King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

Today, Montgomery is the home of the Equal Justice Initiative, founded by lawyer and MacArthur “Engineering Grant” recipient Bryan Stevenson. You may have read his book “Just Mercy” or seen the movie based on it. Stevenson and other EJI lawyers have succeeded in proving the innocence of many languishing in American prisons and in freeing them.

True story

EJI’s cultural projects ensured that Montgomery not only celebrated the “romance” of the Old South, but also the maps where slaves were shipped along the Alabama River, the pens in which they were kept. and the site of the huge slave market, now called Court Square, where around 135,000 human beings were bought and sold between 1804 and 1862.

This is the kind of story that the legislatures, boards of education, and governors of the Republican-controlled states of Florida, Georgia, Texas, Idaho, Montana, South Carolina, United ‘Oklahoma, Arizona, and South Dakota don’t want to argue in schools and colleges.

None of it about “unconscious prejudice”, privilege, or oppression, and certainly no mention of critical race theory, which is, in their eyes, some sort of crypto-Marxist indoctrination designed for whites to feel bad (and whites hate feeling bad) instead of a framework to delineate the obvious truth that our systems of work, education, housing, health care and criminal justice have long been systematically racist.

It shouldn’t even be an argument: look at the story of the red line, the drastically longer sentences for blacks who commit the same crime as whites, the widespread undertreatment of pain in black patients. This does not mean that every white person is racist.

(Although you can reasonably have doubts about some elected officials in Florida).

The sad thing is that the people who most need to experience America’s extraordinary confrontation with the sins of America that is the National Memorial will never visit – people like Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. , who tapped into the old, racist trope of black people plagued by disease when he blamed them, wrongly, for his state’s COVID-19 outbreak.

Over the past 400 years, black people have been blamed for all kinds of terrible things: murder, rape, daring to assume they owed justice on equal terms with whites. The EJI memorial tells a whole desolate and painful series of their stories: In Oxford, Mississippi, in 1894, a white man attempted to assault the daughter of a black man. Jack Brownlee, the black man, demanded that the white man be arrested and was lynched for it.

Acting Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves could learn a thing or two here in Montgomery, not just about Jack Brownlee and the 654 other lynchings that took place in his state between Reconstruction and 1950, but those taking place in Mississippi in the 21st century. : There have been eight suspected lynchings of black men and boys over the past two decades, the most recent in 2019.

Governor Reeves surely loves the story: At Millsaps College in the 1990s, he was a member of the Kappa Alpha Order, a fraternity whose members have long worn Confederate uniforms for parties with young women in hoop skirts to celebrate. the Old South.

“Gentlemen of the south”

The KA call themselves “gentlemen of the South”. The mob mob that murdered 14-year-old Warren Powell in Fulton County, Ga., For “scaring” a white girl in 1889; the people who killed David Walker and his entire family in Hickman, Ky., in 1908 because Walker allegedly used “inappropriate language” when speaking to a white woman; the vigilantes who hanged Frank Dodd of DeWitt, Ark., in 1916 for “boring” a white woman – well, they probably also considered themselves “gentlemen of the South”, defending the “southern way of life”.

Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, two governors determined to make it harder for minorities to vote, might be interested to know that it wasn’t just about being suspected of attacking, to scare or assault white women who could turn black people killed – voting was also considered a crime worthy of lynching.

In 1946, Maceo Snipes of Taylor County, Georgia, who had just returned from fighting fascism in Europe, was gunned down by a gang of white men for voting in the Democratic primary. Earlier, on November 2, 1920, in Ocoee, Florida, at least 30 black residents were murdered to prevent them from voting.

No one was killed for attempting to vote in the 2018 election in Waller County, Texas, but students at Black Prairie View A&M faced threats and huge barriers to voting. As people of color try to vote in 2022, the Texas Legislature – white men determined to protect what they still called in 2021 the “purity of the ballot box” – they will face a Byzantine array of restrictions. and obstacles. designed to stop them.

Meanwhile in Florida, nonviolent criminals who have paid off their debt to society still cannot reclaim their franchise without jumping through endless hoops, a practice that started in Jim Crow Florida to reduce the number of blacks going to the polls.

The Conservatives insist that all of these old bad things are behind us. America has changed. We might have done a few racist things back then, a long time ago, but it’s okay now! We are all equal now! Hell, we even elected a black president that time.

Go read the names in the Montgomery Memorial. Next, see exhibits at the Legacy Museum in which people of color share stories of being jailed for minor offenses or wrongly convicted, or even placed on death row. Read about Crystal Mason, a black woman from Texas sentenced to five years for voting, or Hervis Rogers, a black man who thought his parole was over and waited six hours in line to vote.

It turns out he was wrong. He now faces up to 40 years in prison.

It’s now, not 100 years ago or 60 years ago. America today. The Equal Justice Initiative is here to remind us that Jim Crow is not gone. Our history still distorts our present.

This hackneyed quote from William Faulkner about the South is true across the country: “The past is never dead. It didn’t even happen.


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