A few years ago, I read the book Just Mercy and I have followed and supported the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative ever since. He and his staff stand out for me as an inspiring model of social activism fueled and sustained by an unwavering dedication to justice, so when I received notice about the long-awaited opening of the National Memorial For Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration, in Montgomery, Alabama, I booked my tickets without hesitation.
I wanted to know from my own experience that we could tell the truth as a country, that we could take a close look at our own centuries-long terrorism of African Americans and the racism and oppression that people of color and Native Americans experience in America. I wanted to know that we could begin to heal what has long festered in the murky blindness of our carefully constructed white privilege: the insidious dehumanizing of entire races of humans defined by the color of their skin, a distorted perspective that is aided and abetted by the media we consume rabidly. I expected to be confronted with the horrors of slavery, lynching, police brutality, and the intact school-to-prison pipeline for African Americans. I did not expect to come away so energized and hopeful.
In her book Real Love, meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg writes, “Sometimes the actions committed against individuals or a group of people are so agonizing that the idea of including the perpetrators in those we wish to be free seems an outrageous mockery of justice. Yet we can find people who show us that anger and compassion are not mutually exclusive in the brave and willing human heart.” Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative planned the opening ceremonies to call forth our bravery and willingness to collectively face our history.
I know now we can heal from this horrific history because I have had an experience of what it feels like: a unity of purpose that was both palpable and contagious, as we gathered for three days of talks, ceremonies, and concerts. I plan to return to the Memorial and Museum when I can take more time, without rushing to the next presentation.
One of the exhibits in the museum I missed was an opportunity to pick up a phone receiver in a booth, as I would if visiting a prisoner, and watch a video of a prisoner as they told their story, then thanked the viewer for listening. The incarcerated people in the videos are people Bryan Stevenson and his staff at Equal Justice Initiative represent. Some of EJI’s clients are children sentenced to life without parole. Some of their clients have been on death row for decades for crimes they clearly did not commit, crimes that needed to be solved quickly despite the lack of evidence or fair trial proceedings.
Steve Bright, one of Stevenson’s law professors at Yale, spoke at the summit. He explained that when the South’s reputation for lynchings began to be too politically expensive, the criminal justice system – the system he described as the least affected by the civil rights movement – took lynchings into the courtroom. There, court-appointed attorneys with little or no interest in their clients’ guilt or innocence bartered for plea bargains in collaboration with police, who often pressured confessions. He cited cases in which court appointed attorneys even missed filing deadlines for appeals in capital cases! Without adequate representation, these so-called trials are often a mockery of justice, and consequently, death sentences have been handed down disproportionately to African Americans. Stevenson reminds us that “the criminal justice system treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.” Bright says he has found no better lesson about how the criminal justice system works than to have Anthony Ray Hinton, whom he shared the stage with, come speak to his students.
After serving twenty eight years on death row in Alabama for crimes he did not commit, Stevenson finally won Mr. Hinton’s freedom. It took sixteen years of appeals to secure a unanimous decision for a retrial in the United States Supreme Court. Only at this point did the state of Alabama drop all charges against Mr. Hinton, but the state has remained silent on the decades they stole from him. Mr. Hinton now works with EJI speaking publicly about his experience, and has written a memoir, The Sun Does Shine, which I highly recommend.
I keep replaying in my mind the many moments that moved me, the felt sense of truth that shifted from conceptual understanding to a more integrated visceral experience as I walked through the Memorial, around and under 800 pillars of rusted corten steel, each representing a county where human beings were lynched, each engraved with individual names and dates. As you continue past the rows of pillars, the ground slopes downward and the pillars begin to rise above you, like the hanging bodies of the lives they represent. There are duplicate pillars lying in rows outside the center structure, waiting to be claimed by the counties where these atrocities – or as one African American man there generously described them, "failures of the human spirit" – occurred. The individual pillars contain the names of over four thousand known victims, leaving unnamed and unknown many more. Some pillars listed dozens of people, some whose names are unknown, with the dates of their lynchings. Some detailed as many as fifty people lynched in a single day, in a single county. Bryan Stevenson tells us that we can’t heal and come together as a country until we face the truth of what has happened. This is something we know as therapists.
I was fortunate to go with a friend, Lynne Hyerle, also a therapist who works with trauma. She spoke about the power of her experience there: ”The effects of trauma can be metabolized and healed by holding them in mindful loving presence in individual therapy. In Montgomery I experienced what felt like the beginnings of a collective healing, as the memorial invited us to witness and turn toward the trauma of our horrific history with reverence. The museum and the summit talks reinforced that facing and speaking the truth has to be the foundation for the ongoing work of dismantling systemic racism and oppression of all kinds.”
Yes, there is deep sorrow when we reflect that some of our ancestors dressed up and brought their children to the courthouse lawn to see a human being lynched, and then sometimes burned or dismembered for souvenirs. Their mutilated bodies were stark and effective warnings to the black community of what could happen if white supremacy was challenged. Sometimes people were lynched for knocking on white people’s front doors, or following too closely on sidewalks. Some of the individual stories are told on plaques around the memorial, along with powerful bronze sculptures that depict the dehumanization they suffered. The museum itself was built on the former site of a holding pen for slaves before they were sold at auction.
As we tell our clients in therapy, often we are cultivating the ability to come close to our wounding, to feel the mixture of sorrow, rage, shame and a whole host of shifting, uncomfortable human feelings we’d rather not feel. This process can help us move from surviving our wounding to more fully living, opening up the ability to feel more connection with ourselves and others, including the very real possibility of joy. It serves no one to collapse around shame.
I now have another experience of the truth of what we therapists say; it was happening there at the Memorial and we could feel it – the dissolving of avoidance, the turning toward pain, the turning toward each other. Pain and grief, right alongside the joy and gratitude. We came back energized.
Michelle Alexander, who wrote The New Jim Crow, reminded us that the groundswell of grassroots organizing that has picked up speed and strength since the election is the movement. “Trump, and his followers” she said, “are the resistance!” She made this statement in a riveting and informative conversation with Sherrilyn Iffil, who wrote On The Courthouse Lawn. We also heard conversational presentations between Cory Booker and Common, with Jacqueline Woodson moderating; between Gloria Steinem and Marian Wright Edelman; and between Ava DuVernay, who directed “13th” and “Selma” and Anna Deavere Smith, moderated by Elizabeth Alexander, whose poem hangs on the inside of the wall encircling the Memorial. We enjoyed concerts by Patti LaBelle, Sweet Honey and the Rock, Common, Usher, Jon Batiste, The Roots, Kirk Franklin, and finally, Stevie Wonder, his appearance a final surprise “gift of love” from Bryan Stevenson. Before Stevie Wonder sang he spoke solemnly about the grief of racism and challenged us - including the president - to a year of atonement. What does that mean for us? Do we exclude ourselves if we didn’t grow up in the South? How do we gain the courage and commitment to come face to face with our collective history?
I recall the tears of joy and sorrow I cried listening to Anthony Ray Hinton and other speakers. Other times I smiled until my face hurt, or screamed so loudly when Stevie Wonder was announced that I was hoarse. I walked through the Memorial in reverent silence with others, embraced strangers who ceased to feel like strangers as we danced together, and had spontaneous, animated conversations with new friends in the middle of the street, at night, outside the Legacy Museum. I heard the Black National Anthem sung for the first time, then for a second and third time by all of the black people there, who all knew it by heart, young and old. How had I never heard it? Was it a treasured secret or was I just not listening, or both? It was always there, since 1900, first sung on Lincoln's birthday, as it turns out.
The truth of our history has always been there as well, waiting for us to claim it, just like the duplicate pillars lying in rows outside the memorial structure, waiting for the counties where the lynchings occurred to claim theirs. Bryan Stevenson tells us to “get proximate.” Healing doesn’t happen in the conceptual realm, from a distance. It happens when we get to know each other, when we connect through our shared humanity, when we listen deeply, when we open our brave and willing hearts. I hope you will go to the Memorial For Peace and Justice and share your experience widely when you return.