Reflections on Racism in America – Residue From My Trip to the Deep South

I am so full of feeling that I feel compelled to write. The topic is racism in America.

Many groups have been targeted throughout our history (indigenous peoples, Chinese, Japanese, others) but my indignity today is focused on Black Americans. First, let me acknowledge up front my own bias. I happily reside in a blue state. As a registered Independent, I consider myself moderate to conservative on most fiscal issues but progressive on most social ones.

So, I knew that a road trip through West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Kentucky would take me out of my usual bubble. Furthermore, I planned to visit many of the historical sites associated with our civil rights history. AND, I just read Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild – my effort to gain a greater understanding of alternate political viewpoints. All by way of saying that the topic of race in America has been on my mind for months, triggered by my reading the powerful and highly recommended book, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Before this book I thought racism was one strand in the American story; after, I came to understand that race is interwoven in EVERY aspect of America history.

Yet, still, I was stunned during my road trip, facing the magnitude of historical racial injustice, the pathological determination Southern states have shown in fighting civil rights at every step, and the insidious way racism persists today in both obvious and subtle ways. It is staggering to consider how much work remains to reach true equality among all people.

My two most powerful experiences were visits to The Legacy Museum and the newly opened Center for Peace and Justice— both in Montgomery, Alabama. Both are brilliantly conceived, full of drama, and definitely NOT for the fainthearted.

Courtesy of The Legacy Museum.

The Legacy Museum masterful multimedia exhibits document the history of enslaved people in the United States. The presentation is so compelling and so many of the details were new to me (not surprising they are left out of our public education systems) that it was impossible not to feel deep shame over the random, brutal, abusive, and inhumane treatment White Americans subjected Black Americans to, for centuries. Call it White Guilt, if you wish, but here are just a few of my takeaways:

• Of the 12 million people kidnapped and forcibly shipped from African countries to enslaved lives in the United States, two million died before arrival. From disease, malnutrition, mistreatment, even suicide.

• Those who managed to survive, were forced to await the inevitable slave auction, locked in overcrowded, prison-like facilities, often without sufficient food. Even mothers with young babies.

• HALF of all enslaved people were forcibly sold away from their families (children from parents, husbands from wives, siblings from one another); most never saw or heard from those family members again.

• In the years after the Civil War ended, rule of law essentially did not exist for Black Americans in many states and territories. Not just in the South. Law enforcement officials routinely looked the other way while Whites arbitrarily and wrongfully murdered Blacks, rarely facing any consequence.

• The movement toward equality in this country has been excessively slow – following a pattern of one step forward and two steps back. Because, during the past 150 years, each time the federal government enacted a new law (like outlawing the international slave trade in 1808) or a federal court issued a new ruling to ensure the civil rights of Black Americans – Southern states then followed one of two strategies. They either enacted laws designed to get around the new rulings. (The origins of both the Jim Crow laws and the concept of separate but equal.)  Or, alternately, they simply ignored the new laws. Just two examples:

  1. In 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate was not equal” and that public schools had to integrate, there were entire public school systems in the South that decided to simply close, just so Whites would not have to attend integrated schools.
  2. In the 1960s, when the Freedom Riders rode buses through Southern states to end segregated seating on buses and segregated facilities and waiting areas at bus stations, federal laws AGAINST this type of segregation were ALREADY in place. Yet still the Freedom Riders were bombed and beaten by Southern Whites, while local law enforcement looked the other way.

My visit to the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened less than a year ago, was just as compelling. Less like a museum outing, more like visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

On 800 engraved, hanging stone pillars, each representing a different county, the Center for Peace and Justice documents the lynching of more than 4400 Black Americans, in the years following the Civil War. One as recent as 1981.

Many of these victims are not even named; they are listed as “anonymous.” And of course, the documented cases represent only a portion of the actual number of Black Americans who suffered this fate.

I searched for but could not find any sort of pattern, to help me make sense of this violence. Sometimes it was as random as a couple of Whites simply deciding to lynch a Black person. Other times, crowds gathered in the thousands, making a lynching a social event, complete with refreshments and entertainment. Usually, victims were tortured before being killed. Sometimes their severed body parts were then distributed to attendees as souvenirs.

Most lynching victims were men, but some were women, and some children. Several couples were lynched together. One pillar commemorates 24 executions on the same day in the same county. A sampling of the reasons White perpetrators cited to justify their actions are featured along one wall of the Memorial:

  • After Calvin Mike voted in 1884 in Calhoun Country, Georgia, his elderly mother and two daughters were lynched in retribution.
  • Ham Patterson, because he spoke disrespectfully about white people, in Callaway County, Missouri.
  • Jim Eastman, in Brunswick, Tennessee, for not allowing a white man to beat him in a fight.
  • Warren Powell, age 14, for “frightening” a white girl in Palestine, Arkansas.
  • A man in Millersburg, Ohio for standing around in a white neighborhood.
  • Jack Brownlee, after he had a white man arrested for assaulting Brownlee’s daughter. (Irondale, Alabama)
  • Robert Morton, in Rockfield Kentucky, for writing a note to a white woman.
  • David Hunter in Laurens Country, South Carolina, for leaving the farm where he worked without permission.
  • General Lee, in Reevesville, South Carolina, for knocking on a white woman’s front door.
  • Anthony Crawford for rejecting a white merchant’s bid for cottonseed in Abbeville, South Carolina.
  • Grant Cole, in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to run an errand for a white woman.
  • Elizabeth Lawrence, lynched in Birmingham Alabama in 1933, for reprimanding white children who threw rocks at her.
  • Jesse Thornton in 1940 in Luverne Alabama, for addressing a white police officer without the title “Mister.”
  • An unnamed construction worker in Camp Blanding, Florida in 1941 – for insisting that a white co-worker return his shovel.

I find it impossible to fathom the kind of terror this arbitrary and widespread torture and murder created in the everyday lives of Black Americans. Imagine going through each day, completely unable to protect your loved ones from acts of violence or sudden death. Uncertain they will come back. And not even being able to anticipate which of their harmless or unintentional behaviors might trigger fatal retribution.

And all this AFTER the legal end of slavery. No wonder six million Black Americans left the South during The Great Migration, looking for better lives in Northern and Western areas. So, I find myself full of questions:

  1. How can our nation hope to achieve true equality when it doesn’t even talk about its racist past?
  2. How can we ever hope to heal if we don’t acknowledge and apologize for the wrongs we have committed against one another in the past?
  3. And why do so many Americans continue to deny that the United States remains a racist country?

Sadly, it doesn’t appear things are likely to change any time soon. Just consider this. The Center for Peace and Justice created a duplicate set of the 800 engraved stone pillars, which now sit outside the main memorial.  The hope is that each county responsible for documented acts of lynching will eventually come forward, own up to its history, and move that second duplicate pillar to its own home territory for display. As a first step toward reconciliation. Thus far, no pillars have been claimed.

The final wall inside the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.