I didn’t expect to feel hope.
In May, a church member requested prayer for racial healing in Buncombe County. That request led to a pilgrimage to the newly opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery.
The Memorial commemorates more than 4300 lynchings documented from 1865 – 1950. The idea for the Memorial began with attorney Bryan Stevenson and the organization he helped found, the Equal Justice Initiative. EJI’s primary mission is to work to free the unjustly incarcerated.
The epidemic of mass incarcerations of African Americans in our country has led Stevenson to this conclusion: In the United States, slavery did not end; it evolved. From slavery, to prisoner-leasing programs during Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, to the current staggering incarceration rates, systemic racism–the denigration of a whole race of people based on the darkness of their skin–in our country persists.
How might we heal that racism? How might we create a truly just society? A first step, Stevenson suggests, is squarely facing one horrific practice in our nation’s history–lynching.
The Memorial consists of large, metal pillars suspended from the structure’s ceiling. The likeness to hanging bodies is clear. Each pillar represents a county in which lynchings occurred. The names of victims and dates of their deaths are recorded on each pillar. On Buncombe County’s pillar are three names: John Humphreys (7/15/1888), Hezekiah Rankin (9/24/1891), and Bob Bracket (8/11/1897).
Descended from slaveholders, I joined our 39-member interfaith pilgrimage with trepidation. When I learned of my family’s slaveholding past, the feelings of guilt nearly incapacitated me. How could people with my DNA think they could own other human beings? How could I ever atone for their cruelty? How could I, a white Southerner descended from slaveowners, do anything in the cause for racial justice?
I entered the memorial feeling the weight of these questions. In the first moments inside the structure, the horror of all the memorial represents hit full force. So many pillars, so many names, so much cruelty, so much death. Executions occurred for the tiniest of crimes—knocking on someone’s front door, looking another person in the eye, writing a note to a white person. A plexiglass box at the center of the Memorial contains dirt collected from sites of lynchings across the South. Whose DNA might be mingled with those grains of soil? The dirt somehow makes the history real. Above this very dirt, your mind’s eye imagines a lynched body hanging.
(Photo by Rachael Bliss)
As I emerged from the Memorial, I found the pillars for counties where I had lived and where each of my parents had grown up. I found the pillar for Oglethorpe County, Georgia, where my family’s plantation was located.
Seeing each pillar, reading the names, learning the stories of the deaths of some of those individuals connected me with the past in a profound way. Perhaps most helpful was seeing “my” pillars placed alongside so many others. The vast array visually demonstrated that my ancestors weren’t the only racists in the country. Looking at row upon row of pillars, I realized that all of us—my slave-holding ancestors as well as all of us today—all of us are still caught in the insidious web of racism.
I left the Memorial harboring hope that it is within our power—together—to begin unraveling that tangled web.
At the center of the Memorial—at its lowest point—is a wall dedicated to thousands of lynching victims whose deaths were not documented. A sheet of water cascades down the wall. As I sat amidst the horror and my guilt I wondered—did the water represent tears for those who were lost? Or did it represent the words of the prophet Amos, that “justice might roll down like water, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”? Did that water represent tears or justice?
I realize now it represented both. Justice only comes after we have acknowledged—and felt—the suffering of those treated unjustly. Now that I have faced the horror and wept tears of grief and guilt, I feel ready to work for racial justice. Now, I feel ready to begin answering my congregant’s prayer for racial healing in Buncombe County. Now, having faced the horror, I feel hope.