Worlds Collide in Montgomery, Alabama

By Kent Lenci posted 06-01-2018 02:04 PM


The first time I ran into Jesse Jackson in an Alabama hotel lobby, I was surprised. When it happened again a few weeks ago, though, I wasn’t all that shocked. After all, Reverend Jackson was just one of the many civil rights all-stars who had gathered for the Equal Justice Summit in Montgomery, Alabama to honor the unveiling of two gut-wrenchingly powerful tributes to the African American experience. As Bryan Stevenson reminded us attendees at the opening ceremony on Thursday evening, we were all in the presence of civil rights royalty— Congressman John Lewis, Elizabeth Eckford (one of the Little Rock Nine), Claudette Calvin (whose defiance of Montgomery bus segregation predated that of Rosa Parks by nine months), and many others. As a teacher of the Civil Rights Movement, I was in awe. I was humbled to be in such company, and, as I set out to explore the EJI’s memorials, I was gripped by my surroundings.

The National Memorial for Justice and Peace is a haunting place. It represents the culmination of the Equal Justice Initiative’s painstaking attempt to document the full scope of lynchings that took place in the decades following the Civil War. The names of the murdered victims are inscribed on steel structures that, as you proceed through the memorial, gradually rise above your head like hanging bodies; it is deeply unsettling. The Legacy Museum is similarly powerful, housing an array of artifacts that weave a thread of African-American subjugation from slavery, to lynchings, to mass incarceration in modern times. A powerful lineup of speakers—including Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow—eloquently and passionately reinforced the themes of the Memorial and the Museum.

I was riveted by the messages of the EJI, yet the experience of being in Montgomery felt jarring, as if I were being torn between two worlds. When I first arrived in town, stiff from the drive from Atlanta, I wandered the streets to find Martin Luther King’s church just a stroll’s distance from the first White House of the Confederacy. The steps of the State House, the final destination of those who marched from Selma in 1965 to demand voting rights, is a stone’s-throw from a towering Confederate monument. The rhetoric, too, was at odds. On Thursday morning, New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb raised the roof with his characterization of Donald Trump as the outlier, the temporary resistance to what he called a “bold new America, struggling to be born.” Later that day, as I drove through town, I listened to the local talk-radio hosts breathe the names of Michelle and Barack Obama with the deepest contempt, the unmistakable mistrust of the “other” bleeding through the speakers of my rented pickup truck. In contrast, they spoke of the current President in almost Christ-like terms—a martyr suffering at the hands of those in the “deep state” who would try to defame him. The fractures in our country appeared to me in bold relief in Montgomery.

Like any decent teacher, I tried to gather lessons from my journey. As I hoped I might, I left Montgomery chock-full of references and stories to share with my seventh-graders: the photo of Bryan Stevenson for one student reading Just Mercy, and Michelle Alexander for another student who is working her way through The New Jim Crow. I knew the kids would be impressed that I occupied space with veterans of the Freedom Rides, and I suspect that as I tap deeper into the EJI’s website, my civil rights lessons will take on a new luster.

Our school could benefit from the expertise of the host of experts I discovered at the Summit, and even my own family was not spared my rejuvenated zest for racial justice. Dr. Howard Stevenson shared an audio file he somehow had the presence of mind to record in the midst of having “the talk” with his eight-year-old son several years ago. The exchange between father and son was, to my ears, revelatory—a heartbreaking and inspiring conversation about growing up Black in America. I was particularly struck by the fluency with which Dr. Stevenson’s young son referenced tragedies such as the killing of Trayvon Martin, and I felt ashamed that my own boys—one a year younger and the other a year older than Dr. Stevenson’s son was at the time—knew nothing of such tragedies; they have not needed to know. Full of righteousness, I hit my kids with a lesson on racial awareness at the breakfast table, which I botched miserably; my wife says they were not ready for it.

I would never have considered my own New England school to have been in the category of the “segregation academies” that sprang up in the South to spare indignant whites the ignominy of educating their white children with African Americans, and yet I left Alabama feeling uneasy. Don’t we provide an alternate education for those who can escape what in some areas is a mediocre, integrated (and sometimes not), public school system? The Equal Justice Initiative has woven together what can feel like unrelated chapters of history—segregation, lynchings, the war on drugs, and mass incarceration—into a coherent narrative about the experience of African Americans, and, when added to that narrative, the story of independent education feels to me a bit less comfortable than it had two months ago. At the very least, seeing my own school through fresh eyes, I am eager to join a conversation about how we can best further the ideals of equity and justice that EJI has so forcefully and effectively pushed into the national dialog.