I planned my civil rights tour of the south for over a year. I had great anticipation of walking in the steps of civil rights activists, seeing the places where they stood against oppression. I expected this to be an uplifting and inspirational journey. I left under a cloud of sober understanding of why the struggle for civil rights is essential.
I spent a month living in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. I spent half that time in Montgomery. I learned in greater detail than I had ever understood, the barberry, humiliation, subjugation, and terror that befell black people in our country and the response since then. Racism didn’t end in 1863 – the year of emancipation, it didn’t end in 1865 – the year the civil war ended, it didn’t end in 1954 – the year of Brown vs. Board of Education, it didn’t end in 1964 – the year the Civil Rights Act passed, and it has not yet ended. What I learned in my journey was the context and the entirety of how civil rights and racism are linked in bondage. One begets the other and is a circular phenomenon that continues to this day.
The Legacy Museum, created by the Equal Justice Initiative, is the most profound museum and exhibition I have ever experienced. It is worth whatever it takes for you to go to it and immerse yourself. I experienced it as walking into dark waters and drowning before being revived.
I had an overwhelming sense of “in your face” in this place. There is no looking away. It is painful, sad, nauseating and exhausting. Now, consider living the reality of slavery, discrimination, and racism every day as an African-American. Truly think about it.
My first thought as I stood in the space was to flee. Then I had thoughts of “I’ve seen enough, I know this, it’s too much, I can’t.” I kept going through the space and I realized, it’s not too much and I have to face what we did and what we do. I spent an hour and it felt like days. I was spent.
But I went back and visited the museum a second time in the same week. I spent hours there in order to really understand the elements and nuance. The building sits on the site where the Montgomery slave holding pen was located. Slaves came off trains or boats and walked several blocks to this warehouse before they were walked a few more blocks to the auction site. The museum is below ground and upon entry you experience oral histories from slaves, projected as life sized video with audio in holding cells. Buckle up, it’s intense. You then enter a brightly lit gallery room that is artfully filled with information in black and white. Walls, streamers, banners, partitions, and video salons, are filled with interactive information on slavery, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and incarceration justice. It is this holistic narrative that gives rise to absolute awareness.
The visualization of these eras is stunning. Reproductions of slave ads to buy and sell, and slave rewards for capture are matter of factly displayed floor to ceiling. Slaves were advertised with a first name and quality of work ethic and skill. Women, men and children were listed in these ads. It’s a rootless record of genealogy. Likewise, signs from the Jim Crow era along with local requirements for segregation are visually displayed floor to ceiling. Video footage of MLK and white segregationists play. Civil rights events and history are depicted on interactive computer stories in full detail and videos of events and history play in small salon spaces. These spaces are where you get context to understand the totality, the inescapable nature of the reality. Several timelines of histories are portrayed. I found most indicative of the permanency of racism to be the judicial timeline. It chronicles the Supreme Court cases that systematically subjugated people of color and later tried to make way for equality. The final exhibits include interactive videos of black men incarcerated in southern state penitentiaries. They provide a “you are there” experience as a visitor. It is an experience that will put many people into completely unknown territory.
Slavery Built on Supremacy
The overwhelming reality I experienced in the museums, memorials, plantations, historical sites, and exhibits I visited during the month demonstrated the incontrovertible fact that white supremacy drives the entire experience of being in the United States. It fills every nook and cranny of our existence. It is the fabric we dress in every day. And it is the cog that moves our past into the future. It may be overt or it may be subtle, but it exists.
Did you know that Haiti was a slave state that catapulted itself through a slave revolt and the new country was formed by former slaves? That revolution created a ripple effect in the U.S. to stomp out slave rebellions. Restrictions on reading, writing, gathering, and worst – the Slave Fugitive Acts, were created to return property to its owner, regardless of escape to freedom. Banks made loans to plantation owners based on the value of their human property – collateral value. Did you know that when the U.S. ended the importation of slaves in 1807, the domestic slave trade began in earnest by making slavery hereditary? The children of anyone in slavery automatically became slaves, along with their grandchildren and great children, and on and on. Growing commodities begat intergenerational trauma.
Slavery was abolished, Jim Crow was outlawed, Civil, Voting, and Housing rights were enacted, and an African-American was elected President. Yet racism persists. I discovered why.
One of the leaders of the Citizens Council in Mississippi, a racist group formed under the veneer of upstanding white citizens, stated that it was clear to him that he did not want negroes running government or making the laws under which he would have to live. This statement was for him and thousands of other white southerners an immutable fact of life. It justified slavery, it justified Jim Crow, and it justified lynching. Today, it justifies mass incarceration, voting suppression, and all manner of double standards.
For these white people then and now, racism does not exist. Racism is some made up construct of abolitionists and northern aggressors or liberals and the federal government. Racism cannot exist when you are justified in your treatment of black persons because…whites are better, because they just are. I was stupefied at this conclusion. Yet when I looked at the totality of southern race relations, it made sense and left me with a new understanding of why racism remains a part of our society. It can’t be shamed, it can’t be logicized. It has to be deconstructed and outnumbered.
Death and Subjugation
I ended my tour of the south at the Whitney Plantation which sits on Plantation Row along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. It’s designed as a historical explanation of the experience of slavery from the enslaved’s point of view. There is no dramatic Gone With The Wind grandeur celebrated there. It depicts the business of slavery – labor for agriculture. Costs were kept low by pushing the boundaries of human endurance and selling off children. If lucky, the business might patiently wait for a child to grow into the plantation labor force. Conditions were wretched and there was no kind heartedness about it – this was a business. This plantation tour memorializes the enslaved people who lived there and points out the conditions of daily life, the slave rebellion that occurred, and documents hundreds of slaves that passed through this portal.
The south is filled with death as the emblem of struggle. The Civil War is glorified everywhere, but can’t negate the history of death. Civil Rights activists, leaders, and allies were killed and politically assassinated in the struggle for systemic change. Slaves were killed and brutally subjugated. Lynchings were homegrown terrorism based on race. It is a depressing history. Yet, the Peace and Justice lynching memorial in Montgomery is a tour de force honor to the dead.
I saw many white people in the historical places I visited overwhelmed with grief, unable to take in the enormity of the history, and in mental disbelief with wide eyes and heads shaking at the destruction before them. Yet, at the end of the day, they could if they liked, let it go because it doesn’t reflect their reality. I have not let this go.
I endured a month of ghostly images and tales of brutality. Imagine being a slave that sought escape from the lived experience of this reality. Over 100,000 slaves escaped by 1865, out of the several million slaves in the U.S. The recent movie, Harriet depicts the brave actions of Harriet Tubman and others who operated the Underground Railroad to freedom. Imagine watching fellow white citizens vote and experience your life in a completely different set of norms. Thousands marched and organized, protested and violated Jim Crow to overcome their disparate existence. Imagine being unjustly accused and convicted, serving sentences at brutal prison farms that mimicked slavery, and being caught in a revolving door of the legal system with no way out. From convict labor after the civil war to the need for Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson’s book and movie based on his Equal Justice Initiative work), the struggle continues.
The insidiousness of racism is that it is deeply rooted in our U.S. systems. Systemic racism constructs the reality we live in and many white people accept it as a given – it’s the way it is. Or worse, it’s the way the Founders wrote it.
We can start with the Constitution and the 3/5s of a person rule that advantaged the south. The south got two for one advantages – the political benefit of counting slaves as people and the economic benefit of slave labor. The electoral college was designed to reward this structure.
The end of reconstruction in 1877 gave license for southern states to create laws that only applied to blacks – Jim Crow was enforced on buses, hotels, cafes, restrooms, and water fountains. It also put up barriers for voter registration and voting. All manner of laws and ordinances were passed to restrict the very act of being black. All the electoral gains that were made at the end of the Civil War were negated and buried. Alabama has tiny plaques inside the Old Capitol chambers that list the names of black representatives and senators elected during reconstruction. They whitewash the aftermath in the rest of their historical accounting.
The turn of the century gave rise to the Klu Klux Klan and Citizens Councils, acting as political muscle and leadership to ensure whites got elected, laws were enacted, and that racism was enforced. The brutality of fear and terrorism is well documented from the history of lynchings to the massacres at Black Wall Street in Tulsa and Rosewood in Florida. The brutality that befell the Freedom Riders and the marchers for Voting Rights in Selma also knew the law not only looked the other way, it enabled this racism.
Today we use social media to chronicle the countless examples of police responding to whites that call 911 because a black person is being black in their presence. The weaponization of race is ubiquitous. And all because we think white is somehow better than.
Giving Can Change the Default
What I also learned in visiting all these sites and spending so much time in the south is that resiliency, dignity, and inspiration are hallmarks of the human spirit and existence. Rosa Parks and the bus boycotters were dignified. You can see it in the film footage documenting their actions. John Lewis and other civil rights marchers were resilient in the face of physical assault and imprisonment. Martin Luther King, Jr. was 26 when he led the Montgomery bus boycott, helped organize the Selma to Montgomery march, led the Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C. and inspired so many people with his speeches and written words before his assassination at age 39. Montgomery elected its first African-American mayor in 2019 carrying on the legacy of Carl Stokes who was the first black mayor of a major city, elected in 1967 – that’s 52 years between them, not even two generations ago. Progress continues.
While history provides context and an understanding, it does not direct the future. African-Americans are citizens with a strength borne out of having to overcome all the obstacles we have put before them. Now it is our behavior and views that need to change.
Whiteness stops being the default standard in the United States when we give it up. Let’s change the default to e pluribus unum – from many we are one.
Legacy Museum Montgomery, AL. $8 admission or $10 for Museum and Memorial
Peace and Justice Memorial (lynching memorial) Montgomery, AL $5 admission or $10 for Museum and Memorial
Mississippi Civil Rights Museum $10 admission
Whitney Plantation Wallace, LA $23 admission