By Kirk Petersen
It’s hard to decide which image of racial injustice was the most disturbing.
As part of their October 18-21 meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church spent a full day on a pilgrimage. The members toured two related exhibits, each a year old: The Legacy Museum, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
Here is some of what they saw:
- Walls in both places displaying hundreds of clear glass jars filled with dirt – from red clay to black soil to parched brown dust – collected by volunteers at the known sites of lynchings, each jar engraved with the name of the victim.
- Floor-to-ceiling descriptions of “Negros” offered for sale, often including name, age, opinions on level of intelligence, and suitability for work in the house or in the field.
- Photos of young white children and adults, some of them grinning, posing at the dangling feet of a lynching victim.
- At the outdoor memorial, more than 800 dark metal monuments, some of them dangling from overhead, each listing the names of people lynched in an individual American county.
- A 1919 newspaper article announcing the time and place of an upcoming lynching in Ellisville, Mississippi, quoting the governor claiming to be “powerless to prevent it.”
The Executive Council is the 40-person body that governs the Episcopal Church between the triennial General Conventions. It meets three times a year in locations around the country.
Montgomery, a city of around 200,000, is both the Cradle of the Confederacy and the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. It briefly served as the first capital of the Confederate States of America. In 1955-56, the 11-month Montgomery bus boycott that was sparked by Rosa Parks introduced the world to a charismatic young black preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached of non-violence as the “weapon of love.”
“This is a normal, small city with a big huge history,” said Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry, in his opening remarks for the four-day meeting. “But it’s not just a history of Montgomery, Alabama, and it’s not just a history of the South. It’s a history of America. … It’s the story of America and our struggle to make E pluribus unum more than simply a Latin phrase.”
Since he was elected presiding bishop in 2015, racial reconciliation has been one of Curry’s three missional priorities, the others being evangelism and care of creation. Council members focused on all three priorities in the course of their meeting, and a major evangelical initiative was announced. But the images of racial injustice are what the council will most remember.
The Legacy Museum is in downtown Montgomery, near a warehouse where enslaved Africans were held while awaiting sale. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice sits on a six-acre hilltop less than a mile away.
Both were opened in April 2018 by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization that “provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons,” the website says. “We challenge the death penalty and excessive punishment and we provide re-entry assistance to formerly incarcerated people.”
The museum traces the full history of racial injustice in America, from Colonial slavery, to the Civil War and Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, to Civil Rights, to mass incarceration today.
The memorial focuses on lynching.
EJI has documented more than 4,400 lynchings of black people in the United States between 1877 and 1950. “Racial terror lynchings were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials,” the memorial’s website says. “Lynchings in the American South were not isolated hate crimes committed by rogue vigilantes. … These lynchings were terrorism.”
The driving force behind EJI is Bryan Stevenson, a public interest attorney and the author of Just Mercy, a 2015 bestseller. Stevenson spoke to the council for nearly an hour after the pilgrimage, from the pulpit of Good Shepherd Episcopal, a small church in a historically black neighborhood.
“I think the worst part of American slavery wasn’t the involuntary servitude. The great evil was the narrative of racial difference we created to justify slavery,” Stevenson said, adding that the same narrative was used to justify Jim Crow. “Those signs that said ‘white’ and ‘colored’ weren’t directions – they were assaults. … The work of changing the narrative is the urgent work we face.”
The museum and memorial are well-attended, and are even advertised in the local airport. But Alabama still celebrates the Confederacy.
Stevenson told the council, “The two largest high schools in Montgomery are Jefferson Davis High and Robert E. Lee High. Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday in Alabama. Jefferson Davis’s birthday is a state holiday in this state. We don’t have Martin Luther King Day in Alabama, we have Martin Luther King slash Robert E. Lee Day.” That last bit drew a gasp from some in the pews.
Curry preached Sunday morning, the day after the pilgrimage, at St. John’s Episcopal, a historic Montgomery church that earlier this year removed a pew bearing a plaque identifying it as the Jefferson Davis pew. Davis, the president of the Confederacy, worshiped briefly at the church before the capital moved to Richmond.
“My kinfolk, from my father’s side, hail from a little town called Midway, not too far up the road,” Curry told the congregation. “So for me this is also homecoming, so I’m glad to be here.”
He didn’t mention it in his sermon, but there’s a grim aspect to that homecoming story. Curry told TLC after the council meeting adjourned the next day, “My family left Alabama in that migration [to the North], it must have been in the early 20’s, before my father was born.”
The family had seven children at the time of the move, “four of whom were boys. And my grandfather said, ‘I’ve got to get them out of the South.’ There was work up north, but it was dangerous here for boys. It just was dangerous. That’s part of our story,” he said.
“So how do you take that, and try to create something new? That’s the work before us,” he said. “But it’s gotta start by going back. Not wallowing, but learning.”
In both his opening and closing remarks to the council, Curry quoted from Maya Angelou’s poem, On the Pulse of Morning: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
“That’s the spirit of being in Montgomery,” Curry said.