An update from student Tannah O.:
Today we visited the Civil Rights Memorial, the historic Dexter Avenue Church, and the Equal Justice Initiative office in Montgomery, Alabama. The Civil Rights Memorial was powerful, to say the least. It had an exhibit to memorialize the 40 people killed in direct relation to the modern Civil Rights Movement, which of course included so many of the faces we have learned about so far on this trip (Till, Chaney, Schwerner, Goodman, Liuzzo, Reeb, Evers and King) along with so many other people brutally murdered by hate groups like the KKK.
In another room, contemporary issues of hate were addressed, such as the deaths of Heather Heyer (woman who was killed at the Charlottesville riot protesting against the alt-right), Islan Nettles (a transgender woman beaten to death by a boy who was embarrassed that he had flirted with a “man”), an Khalid Jabara (a Lebanese refugee murdered on his front porch by his Islamophobic neighbor ). These faces represent the thousands of hate crimes that occur today, in a time when so many people are to quick to say racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of hate “don’t exist anymore.” It was very poignant to look into the faces of the very people that have been on the news in just the past few years, in a way that drew parallels between these hate crimes and those of the ’50s and ’60s.
Another unforgettable part of today was seeing the soil samples being collected for the lynching memorial by the Equal Justice Initiative. EJI has spent years collecting information on every known lynching case in U.S. history, and they are traveling to the sites of these lynchings, collecting soil from each of those sites in beautiful glass jars, and displaying them in an effort to memorialize the thousands of victims (although not all of these victims’ deaths are recorded and, thus, may never be remembered) of lynching across the United States. It is so tragic that we often talk about those deaths in numbers and as facts but not as losses, not as victims of terrorism, not as humans. I think EJI is enacting true justice by memorializing those thousands of victims not for their sacrifice, but for what was brutally and mercilessly taken from them– their lives.
I made a connection today about many of the sites we have seen over the span of our trip. It seems to me that many Anglo-American historical sites have been boarded up as just that– historical sites– but one thing that has struck me about African-American historical sites is that they are in many cases still functioning in their original capacities. For instance, Mt. Zion Church that was burned down by the KKK and Dexter Avenue Church that was pastored by MLK are both still functioning churches that hold services every Sunday. At first, this struck me as almost odd that people walk in the shoes of MLK every day and think nothing of it, but I am realizing that they actually have a very strong sense of that specific history, and perhaps this is the reason those sites have been willed to continue to function. Perhaps they feel that they earned the right to keep those holy sites for themselves. Perhaps because religion was such a meaningful and crucial part of the Civil Rights Movement, the African-American community finds a sense of community not only with those in the congregation but also in the structure that ties them to past communities. Whatever the reason, I think it is beautiful that they have blended their histories with their present, refusing to separate the two and carrying on legacies of pride, justice, and progress.