“Georgia is about to become the center of the political universe.” — CNN, November 6, 2020
As my mother lay dying, she told me about something that happened when she was a child, and every time she talked about it she would cry. She had grown up on a little farm outside Ashland, Alabama, a tiny postage-stamp of a town, and when she was six, she and a friend her age went to get an ice cream cone. The two little girls walked into the store holding hands, swinging their arms back and forth in gleeful anticipation. But when they asked for ice cream, the store owner glared at them and refused to budge.
“It was so awful,” my mother would say through tears. “He said he would serve me, but not my friend.” My mother was white; her friend was black. “He said I don’t serve — “ my mother paused — “well, you know what he said; I can’t bear to repeat it. Oh, her face, her face when he said that. I can never forget it.” Her father, who was a Baptist preacher, walked in the store and saw the girls crying. “Why are you doing this to the children?” he asked him, entreating the man to change his mind. “Well, Reverend, I’m sorry but I just can’t do that.” Finally, my grandfather asked the girls to wait outside while he got two cones and brought them out for them to eat. The ice cream tasted like dust, like ashes.
I thought about my mother and her friend last year when my colleagues at the Center for Youth Wellness and I traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I’m thinking about them again, as the election counts roll in. The museum is a wrenching, soul-searing journey into the horrors of slavery, and — as its name suggests — slavery’s dark legacy. The National Memorial is dedicated to the victims of lynching, much as the Holocaust Museum is dedicated to the victims of genocide.
Montgomery is also the birthplace of the U.S. civil rights movement, and we were excited to visit the home of Dr. Martin Luther King, who at 26 was chosen to lead the Montgomery bus boycott; the Rosa Parks Museum; the bridge to Selma; and the old Trailways terminal, which is now a museum dedicated to the Freedom Riders who risked their lives to overturn segregation on interstate buses. An anonymous funder generously donated to enable this pilgrimage, and I feel that if every person in the United States could make this journey and be taught our true history in the schools, we would be a different country — one that is more just and merciful.
I remember that in high school, the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War occupied about one paragraph in our history book, perhaps in part because of a round-up of “offensive” history books that were then burned by the Georgia Department of Education. The haunting oral histories of slaves, former slaves, and their descendants trace a history that far too few of us are aware of. Many Southerners — and other Americans — don’t realize the crime of slavery didn’t end with the civil war: Its legacy stretches from the failed Reconstruction, in which newly freed black men were arrested in massive numbers on trumped-up charges such as “vagrancy” and forced to work as free (convict) labor, to the rise of white supremacy and segregation.
As Dr. King has noted, former slaves were never given an economic base, such as the one made freely available to white peasants from Europe in the form of millions of acres of land in the West and Midwest. “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps,” he concluded.
Thanks to films like 13th and Just Mercy, more Americans have learned that the legacy of slavery has shadowed our country to the present. It ranges from the emergency of the KKK and white terrorism in the South, which forced millions of blacks to flee to other states, to the rise of mass incarceration — a brutal system so racially discriminatory that one in three black male babies will end up in prison. Significantly, the author of Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, is also the leading force behind the Legacy Museum, which observes that racism and white terror groups, in addition to traumatizing and harming millions of Black Americans, have also traumatized white Americans and undermined their psychological health.
At the National Memorial, which honors the more than 4,000 African Americans who were terrorized and lynched between 1877 and 1950, the victims — men, women, and children — are named by county on steel columns dangling from beams. There are duplicates on the ground that resemble rows of tombstones, and I felt a scalding shame to see my home state of Georgia was represented by a row of columns so long that it stretched around a corner.
I hoped I would not see a column from Fulton County, where I grew up, but there it was, with the names of so many lynching victims they had to be etched in two columns. So was Cobb County, where I was born, and the counties where my mother and father were born. On some walls, the actions that preceded the lynchings were recorded: A black person had refused to address a white man as “sir,” declined to buy seed at a certain price, tried to start a union, or was singled out and killed for no reason at all.
The memorial underscores the different realities between blacks and whites in the South and elsewhere. For me, as a child, Alabama was an idyllic place where I spent hours collecting chicken eggs, petting cows, basking in the loving attention of my relatives and grandparents, and catching fireflies and crayfish on their small farms; I barely noticed my great-aunts had no electricity or running water. For many blacks during that same period, the South was a place they could never feel safe. This was brought home during the trip when our chief of staff, who grew up in Texas and had relatives in Louisiana, shared what she was thinking about as she looked at the metal columns at the memorial for lynching victims:
“I was looking for names of family members.”
— Diana Hembree
(This is adapted from a piece I wrote for the Center for Youth Wellness).