The deep South has as much historical significance as does Boston or DC, but its whispered warnings can often be ignored. The lessons the South has to offer seem particularly poignant today and so this is where I’ve spent the last week on vacation. It’s not been like other vacations where ocean breezes and blue waters have calmed the soul. Here, in Tennessee and Alabama, my soul has been agitated and roused. My soul has been fortified for the fight ahead — because the past here is loud; its whispers turn into wails. We best pay attention.
Nashville, where I visited one of my oldest and dearest friends who I’ve known since kindergarten, was a wonderful place to start. Surrounded by a city known for its country music, we caught up with each other. For a day or two, I played tourist. But it was when I went to Birmingham, AL, that our country’s darker past struggle for civil rights was laid before me like a life-sized tableau.
I started in Birmingham at the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. Such an incredible — and emotional — walk through a pivotal time in our history. I wish I could say “we’ve come so far” — but the truth is, we have an awful long way to go. We are in the middle of very real threats to democracy and our country; we would be wise to listen to what the 50’s and 60’s have to tell us.
Kelly Ingram Park is at the center of the Civil Rights Monument; the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is on one corner, across the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The 4th Avenue District is where African Americans, shunned by whites, created a thriving business and recreational community. As an aside, it was in the 4th Ave District where we had the BEST meal of my trip: fried chicken, fried okra, and green fried tomatoes at Green Acres, a take-out restaurant that’s been in the neighborhood for 60 years.
Throughout Kelly Ingram Park, there are statues that remind us, in a very visceral way, of the events that happened there. Children, marching for peace, were attacked with hoses that could strip the bark off trees and snarling dogs meant to strike fear.
There is a beautiful statue of three ministers, kneeling in prayer. I found myself joining them in my heart.
The statue that that brought me to tears is titled “The Four Spirits” and depicts the four little girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church. The details of this sculpture are worth paying attention to as they bring these girls to life.
In the pictures above, you can see the 16th Street Baptist Church in the background. While I wasn’t able to secure a tour of the inside, here are a few shots from the street.
Across the street is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute which should be a required field trip for every American child. The exhibits there bring to life the tremendous struggle to apply the United States Constitution to every American citizen, fairly and without discrimination. It is a challenge we are facing again today and it cannot be ignored. From Rosa Parks and the Bus Boycott to the actual bars of the cell where Dr. King wrote his famous letter to Birmingham, history comes alive. You’re faced with visual and visceral comparisons between the easy privileges whites enjoyed (more white-collar work, newer classrooms with fewer students, a better mortality rate — among some of the privileges) to the constant and daily struggle of African Americans who were considered “less than” and not worthy. It’s a heartbreaking past.
But the past becomes terror-filled when you travel to Montgomery, Alabama’s newest memorial and museum: the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I know Oprah has done a lot on this memorial and I’m not sure I can do this justice, but I am compelled to try. Here, you come face to face with the terror of the slave trade and the lynchings that followed. The first image as you enter the memorial is a statue of men and women, in chains, bloodied and naked. It will make you catch your breath. There is one woman holding a baby and the woman’s facial expression will break your heart in two.
Throughout the memorial, there are giant plaques that give a historical perspective, the context of the memorial. I’m including a few of them here because it’s important to our history; we must finally come to terms with how this country was founded. Consider it a brief history.
As I walked through the memorial, the skies got darker and thunder punctuated the heavy silence. A cooling breeze was kicking up and served as a warning that a storm was coming. As you approach the memorial, there are columns. Each rectangular column is dedicated to a county in the South where a lynching happened. When possible, the names of the individuals who were hanged are imprinted on the column with the dates of the lynching. The memorial is set atop a hill and at the beginning of your journey, you are eye-to-eye with columns which seem to rest on the wood plank floors. As you continue to walk, the wood planked floor descends and the columns begin to rise and you realize that each column is like a body, hanging from a tree. As you walk under them, you can see that the counties and states are pressed into the bottom.
Along the walls, there are gray metal banners at the bottom of which individual stories are told. These stories are brief and tell you why each person was hanged, each reason more arbitrary than the last.
Just before you turn the corner:
As you turn the corner, the walls start weeping with a fountain of water. In the middle of the floor is a box of dirt taken from lynching sites, hallowed ground.
Then you begin to climb out from the memorial and you find more columns; these are laying on the ground. They are exact replicas of the ones that are hanging. The goal is to have each county claim theirs and take it back home to display. In this way, according to the Equal Justice Initiative (www.eji.org), we will know “which parts of the country have confronted the truth of their history and which have not.”
As you begin to make your way to the exit, there are a few other sculptures: one depicting the women who sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott and another harkening the racial bias of our justice system and police brutality. In perfect metaphor, on my trip, it was at that moment that the skies opened up with a torrent of tears.
After visiting the memorial, it’s time to head over to the museum. You turn the corner and on each side of the street are the remnants of plantations with their large white-columned houses. Many are in disrepair and the neighborhood is poor. The museum is only minutes away, a block or two from the river where scores of slaves were brought in by ship. It’s also not far from the train station, where trains were part of the domestic slave trade. The museum itself is housed in an old warehouse where “enslaved black people were imprisoned.” The exhibits take you from the earliest days of the slave trade to the injustice of our country’s mass incarceration system and police violence. It’s a museum that everyone should visit.
For me, the most heart-wrenching exhibit was at the very beginning of the tour. There are a series of small jail cells where slaves were held. In each, there is a “hologram” projection of a slave, often in chains, telling a story of their experience. Each is alive and seems to look you straight in the eye. While all the stories are sobering, it was the ones of children being ripped from their mothers’ arms to be sold at auction that ripped my heart. Is this any different than what is happening at our southern border right now? We don’t seem to have learned from our torturous past? Perhaps we should start listening. Perhaps we should start using our voices and our votes to stop the United States from ever going down this terrible road again.