MERCY & Diary of Montgomery, Alabama Journey
With the Peace & Justice Center of Vermont
Two small Black children in tattered clothing holding hands, ask quietly, “Have you seen our mother?”
This scene of the ghostly siblings is in a hologram display at The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. I listened and then moved on to another hologram of the sister of another child taken from their mother. I went to the next gate behind which was a hologram woman talking of God and things meant to be, redemption, but her words melted in my ears and I was drawn back down the hall to the children. A hologram woman singing piercingly in an adjacent cell made listening difficult. I focused, trying to hear the question. Such a small voice. I bowed my head against the cast iron bars of the gate and suddenly sobbed. I was broken open.
All my years learning about the history of the South and the North, reading autobiographies of civil rights activists both Black and white, sorting out pieces of lies, myths, the glossing over, the distancing, the constant betrayal of half-truths, and the silences. The glossing over, the denial, the denial, the denial. I was finally broken open.
Our Nation has been built on the dehumanization and destruction of Indigenous Peoples of North America and Peoples from Africa brought here with no consent. It was not enough that the International Slave Trade was abolished in 1808. The Southern States created the domestic trade and Montgomery was booming with it. The Civil War was not enough. Reconstruction was shattered. Jim Crow smothered rights. 4,400 people were known to be lynched between 1877-1950. The Civil Rights of the Sixties did not create real integration of schools or society. The denigration and dehumanization of Black people continues through violence, police shootings, incarceration. A Google search reports, “Prison rates in the US are the world’s highest, at 724 people per 100,000.”
Currently Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are among the supporters of Representative Bobby L. Rush’s H.R. 32–Emmett Till Antilynching Act, an anti-lynching bill designating lynching as a hate crime. 2019. 2019. 2019.
Imagine being Ruby Bridges’ parents in 1960, sending their six-year-old daughter into a white school for a better education. Ruby and her mother daily walked past screeching vicious crowds while escorted by white federal marshals into the school.
Imagine those parents and children believing so deeply in integration, and, that the time had come for change. The Freedom Riders had signed their last will and testament the night before getting on the Interstate bus. They were willing to die for justice.
Imagine a phone call in 1961 from Alabama that your white child, supposedly in college in New York or Boston studying for exams, was beaten severely at a Greyhound Bus station in Montgomery.
People from my family, my father, his siblings, his parents, grandparents, born into the South believed everyone liked it just the way it was. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make change. People know their place. Philosopher Elizabeth Minnich has written about the “evil of banality.” People do their job, want to be the best at it, go along. They don’t necessarily question why or what they are doing, they don’t think about it. And racist, white supremist core values were seen as polite, civil, “just the way things are.”
I am abashed by the hate. Those capturing, shipping, whipping, selling people. Taking a mother from her small children. Collusion everywhere—from the slavers to the sellers and wearers of the cotton fabrics. The boatbuilders in the North. The rope makers, the blacksmiths making manacles and chains. Those cheering and having a picnic at a lynching. Everyone, North and South, was part of the enslaving systems. Everyone was terrorized.
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again”. (Maya Angelou)
My years of reading and watching documentaries (like all the episodes of Eyes on the Prize and 13th), and facing this history and our legacy, takes courage. It also takes acceptance. I have accepted the power of the lies, the insidiousness of the whitewashed versions of happy slaves, the hysteria that white women have to be protected from Black men, the “science” of brain, bone, teeth measurements to determine intellect, the absolute humiliation for us all of stereotypes and misinformation.
This trip to Alabama was merciful—50 degrees, the museums and sites were not crowded so we could walk through the Memorial at our own pace with our thoughts and wonder. It was also heartbreaking. Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, writes in Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, “There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy.”
“Racism is a heart disease,” says Buddhist teacher Ruth King, “and it’s curable.” Racism is a disease. We can cure this if we face the realities as Maya Angelou says. Enough white fragility. Enough, oh that was so long ago. Enough coming down on each another, for that perpetuates the rule of the owners and betrays our abilities to heal and unite. Our only chance for survival will be through our resistance to hate. Resist racist, homophobic and sexist remarks, jokes, and symbols. Resist messages that demean us. Educate about the honest and true history and contributions of People of Color as intertwined with Euro Americans. We have to work together in all our creativity and abilities to save the planet and create the future. Urgently.
Diary of the Trip: January 25-27, 2019
January 25: THE DEXTER AVENUE KING MEMORIAL BAPTIST CHURCH
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first church. Sarah Collins Rudolph and her husband arrived as Tour Guide Wanda Howard Battle was giving us her regular talk. Sarah Collins Rudolph is the Fifth Girl, the one who did not die in the Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. Her sister, Addie Mae Collins, along with Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair did. Mr. and Mrs. Rudolph were in town for the opening of a play about the Four Little Girls. Mrs. Battle was overwhelmed by their entry and swept them into the tour. Mrs. Rudolph was temporarily blinded in the blast and she did lose an eye. Her new book recounts her life-long witness.
January 26: THE NATIONAL MEMORIAL FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE
800 6-foot-tall rusted steel mini-monuments represent the victims of lynching.
Representation. Six foot mini-monuments hanging, to be walked around and gazed up upon. Replicas waiting in the adjacent yard to be taken to the State and location of the lynching. 800 of them. Some with many names and dates. The year 1947 on one.
4,400 names and many “Unknown.” Murdered for asking for a drink of water, for protesting the lynching of a husband, for saying something to a white woman, for the right to be human.
The memorial sculpture by Ghanaian Kwame Akoto-Bamfo on our early morning visit was saturated in sunlight. Nkyinkyim Sculpture. * The power in the shadows complimented the faces etched in screaming. Each link of the chain is reflected on the ground. Each sculpted Being reached to touch another, seeking to link together while being severed apart.
Inscription on a wall
For the hanged and the beaten.
For the shot, drowned, and burned.
For the tortured, tormented, and terrorized.
For those abandoned by the rule of law.
We will remember.
With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.
With courage because peace requires bravery.
With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.
With faith because we shall overcome.
Ida B. Wells Memorial Grove
“Our country’s national crime is lynching.” (Ida B. Wells)
Guided by Justice, 2018. Dana King (b. 1960) Bronze: Three Women walking during the 381-day Bus Boycott in 1955 and boot prints.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott started on December 5, 1955-December 20, 1956.
Rosa Parks was arrested for not moving to the back of the bus, where the Colored or Negro people were to sit, on December 1st. She was a trained non-violent activist, a seamstress, and she investigated rape cases for the local NAACP. Martin Luther King, Jr., the new pastor at the Dexter Street Baptist Church was 26 when he was faced with these events. The people walked rather than ride the segregated buses. And they walked until the Supreme Court declared racial segregation of public transportation illegal. Non-violent activism begins in earnest.
Raise Up, 2016 Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976) Bronze
JANUARY 26: THE LEGACY MUSEUM: FROM ENSLAVEMENT TO MASS INCARCERATION
Written on the exterior wall of the Legacy Museum:
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again”. Maya Angelou
The domestic slave trade expanded slavery after the International Trade was abolished in 1808. Montgomery, Alabama became a leader in the sale of humans until the end of the Civil War in 1865. Then the manipulation and continued dehumanization of people of color evolved to the current mass incarceration.
JANUARY 26: FREEDOM RIDERS MUSEUM
I don’t think anybody can say the students caused the violence . . . the people who committed violence are responsible for their own actions. (Freedom Rides Coordinator Diane Nash)
Thirteen (7 African Americans and 6 white Americans) Freedom fighters aboard a Greyhound Bus arrived at the Montgomery Terminal on May 20, 1961.They were testing the Supreme Court decision to desegregate interstate bus and rail travel. They had signed their last will and testament the night before.
A mob of 300 segregationists first attacked the photographers and journalists, intentionally destroying their equipment and then they attacked the Riders. All local police, ambulances and services were “busy,” and “unavailable.” The Riders fled to the church nearby or were taken away by local allies.
Over 400 volunteer Freedom Riders, college students, clergy, and housewives, traveled to the South through the summer until Attorney General Robert Kennedy convinced the Interstate Commerce Commission to uphold the law.
Freedom Summer, of 1964, brought many more volunteers to the South to assist in voter registration.
January 27: CIVIL RIGHTS MEMORIAL by Maya Lin (1989)
A black granite circle, names of social justice activists carved on the surface, caressed in spilling water. In front of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Among those names carved into the dais:
Viola Gregg Liuzzo (1925-1965). She was shot by the Klan while driving Leroy Moton, a Black teenage activist who survived by pretending he was dead, from Montgomery to Selma. She is the only known white female to be killed during the Civil Rights Movement.
POEM—Elizabeth Alexander At the National Memorial for Peace & Justice
The wind brings your names.
We will never dissever your names
nor your shadows beneath each branch and tree.
The truth comes in on the wind, is carried by water.
There is such a thing as the truth. Tell us
how you got over. Say, Soul look back in wonder.
Your names were never lost,
each name is a holy word.
The rocks cry out —-
call out each name to sanctify this place.
Sounds in human voices, silver or soil,
a moan, a sorrow song,
a keen, a cackle, harmony,
a hymnal, handbook, chart,
a sacred text, a stomp, an exhortation.
Ancestors, you will find us still in cages,
despised and disciplined.
You will find us still mis-named.
Here you will find us despite.
You will not find us extinct.
You will find us here memoried and storied.
You will find us here mighty.
You will find us here divine.
You will find us where you left us, but not as you left us.
Here you endure and are
You are not lost to us.
The wind carried sorrows, sighs, and shouts.
The wind brings everything. Nothing is lost.
True Peace is not merely the absence of tension. It is the presence of justice. (Martin Luther King, Jr)
(in no particular order) for further reading.
Video of Sculptor at work.
The 5th Little Girl: Soul Survivor of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing (The Sarah Collins Rudolph Story) published by Africa World Press and written by Tracy Snipe (in conversation with Sarah Collins Rudolph). The book will be available through http://africaworldpressbooks.com/
All text and photographs by Shelley Vermilya. Edited by Zora Aretha Vermilya.
Enormous Gratitude to the people of the Peace and Justice Center of Vermont who organized and made this journey possible.