In March, 2022 70 congregants traveled to Georgia and Alabama on a Civil Rights Journey. Lin Saberski wrote about her experience on the trip, which was published in Monterey News this spring.
Gathering immediately after our March visit to The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, it was obvious that my travel companions and I were deeply shaken. The silence of this thirty-nine member group, organized by Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, was palpable and pained. The memorial, a project of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, opened to the public four years ago. It is, in the words of the brochure describing it, “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” Astonishingly, the memorial honors by name more than four thousand men, women, and children who are identified victims of lynching in the United States between 1877 and 1950.
Our accompanying clergy members were prepared for our reaction. After we had calmed a bit with some chanting, our group read aloud a statement our rabbi and cantor had prepared for us “bear[ing] witness to this monument marking unthinkable atrocity,” and urging us to stand with open eyes and hearts. More reading aloud followed; quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Particularly apt for this memorial was Coates’ statement from his book, Between the World and Me: “You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
The National Memorial is striking in its originality and devastating in its impact. The names of the lynching victims are engraved into steel rectangles, one for each county where lynchings occurred. The rectangles hang from the ceiling of the square structure whose four connecting hallways are built around an open courtyard (pictured right).
As you enter the memorial, you stand on a flat wooden floor, the rectangles hanging from the ceiling, with the names easily visible at eye level. One has the names of twenty-three people, all murdered in one day. Then, as you turn the first corner, the floor slopes downward, and the rectangles hang increasingly higher. You quickly begin to feel that you are surrounded by hanging bodies, all with names, all conjuring images you desperately want to push away. But you can’t. Turning the next corner, to the third side, the hanging rectangles continue high above you, and at eye level you are flanked by parallel rows of steel panels, each engraved with the details of a lynching. An example: “Elias Clayton, Isaac McGhie and Elmer Jackson were lynched by a mob of 10,000 people in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1920.” Another: “After Calvin Mike voted in Calhoun County, Georgia, in 1884, a white mob attacked and burned his home, lynching his elderly mother and his two young daughters, Emma and Lillie.” The fourth hallway has a cascading wall of water on the left, honoring the unidentified African American victims of lynchings whose names and numbers will never be known. And still the hanging rectangles accompany your journey.
In Montgomery our group visited The Legacy Museum, which includes in its name the unsettling words, “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.” This is another profoundly stirring installation created by the Equal Justice Initiative. The museum powerfully and creatively uses different media to take you from the beginnings of slavery in the western hemisphere through the “terrorism of lynching and the humiliation of the Jim Crow South” that took place in defiance of Emancipation and the Civil Rights Movement. The last section of the museum documents the present-day mass incarceration of blacks grossly disproportionate to their numbers in the general population. Bringing the history into the present drives home The Legacy Museum’s disturbing message that “slavery did not end; it evolved.” Though our time was shorter in Selma and Birmingham, there was much there to learn and experience. We had the privilege of hearing two passionate speakers who had marched from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights in 1965, and continue their activism today, one eighty-three and the other over ninety.
I have been to other memorials. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC; the 9/11 Memorial in New York City; Yad Vashem, in Israel, honoring victims of the Holocaust; and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, also in DC. Those, and others, I found deeply, deeply affecting. But my reaction to this trip and our two-day immersion in the history of slavery has been more lasting. Truly haunting. The National Memorial’s concept and emotional impact are extraordinary. The distress I experienced at that memorial only grew after visiting the other museums and historical sites.
Ultimately though, it was not only the repeated message or the effectiveness of the delivery that was so devastating for me. What was truly heart-wrenching was to stand on soil where African Americans, generation after generation, had been tortured and enslaved. That made the catastrophic history of American slavery and its aftermath real to me in a way nothing in my education or experience had done before. It went beyond telling an already familiar tragic history, asking, almost demanding, that I not only bear witness, but find a way to join in the continuing struggle to bring justice to African Americans who still endure America’s legacy of enslavement and discrimination.
It is a daunting task, and one I know my traveling companions—and many others—share. Our group discussed some of the obvious options: learn more, share knowledge and experience, donate to organizations which promote equality, work to secure voting rights. Though it is easy to be disheartened, I find inspiration in the wisdom of others. The Legacy Museum has a statue titled “Exode, No Home,” by Sandrine Plante, a life-size representation of a young black woman dressed in rags whose wrists are bound together with thick rope and whose gaze is both fearful and strong. Above her hangs a panel with the words of Phillis Wheatley, born in Africa and sold into slavery in Boston at seven years old, in 1761. Ms. Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book of poetry, was emancipated in 1773, shortly after her book was published.
“[In] every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.”
May the “Love of Freedom” Ms. Wheatley affirmed so long ago keep us moving forward toward a more just and peaceful world.
— Lin Saberski with thanks to Marilyn and David Rivkin for the photographs
The sculpture pictured to the right, the Nkyinkyim Installation by Ghanian sculptor Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, is in front of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. “Nkyinkyim” references the Ghanian Twi proverb, “Life’s journey is twisted.” Nkyinkyim is one of many West African Adinkra symbols. The literal meaning is “twisting,” but it also stands for “Initiative, Dynamism and Versatility.” This sculpture is the first thing you see as you approach the monument building, and is startling in the intensity of the suffering depicted. It is one of only a few sculptures in this country representing slavery.