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Mon 6 July 2020
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Hannah Charlton takes a journey into America’s dark history of segregation and subjugation of black communities and wonders how Britain could do the same

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It is pouring with rain. I’m standing outside the long, dark wall of a building in downtown Montgomery waiting to go through security, asking myself: why am I here? What right do I have to be here? 

I’m in front of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. A visionary name for the first ever public commemoration for the victims of lynching and violent terror in the post-slavery period of American history when white supremacy forced black communities into subjugation and segregation: America’s greatest wound, as yet unhealed and never fully acknowledged. 

I’m feeling a complicated mix of emotions. Anxiety, confusion and the anticipation of deep shame, and of somehow being held accountable. I didn’t yet know how to be here.

I had bought my ticket to both the memorial and its partner project the Legacy Museum across the road in a new, white building home to the Equality and Justice Initiative. $3.50 was the price for a day that would lead me deep into the divided heart of America. It would also force me to examine my own personal British collusion.

Later, I came to understand just how privileged my curiosity was. The curiosity that would take me through Selma and along the road to Montgomery that the Civil Rights marchers took to demand the right to vote. But I needed to turn the inquiry on myself.


Hanging Headstones

The first sight of the memorial is a long, low structure up on a slope, past a sculpture of enslaved people straining at their chains in terror. 

Under the roof were row on serried row of steel coffin shapes, with just enough space to walk between. Each of these weathered steel caskets had etched into it the name of a county and below the names and death dates of those individuals brutally murdered during the years of violent terror.

Walking through this forest of hanging headstones was to be confronted with waves of tragic deaths – women and men, sisters, brothers and the more poignant Unknowns.

Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s sculpture, dedicated to the memory of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade, stands at the entrance to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. Photo: Barry Lewis

As I went lower through the memorial’s spiral structure, the steel headstones gradually rose above me becoming hanging pillars so that I was looking up at the foot of the headstone just as the lynching witnesses would have looked up to the body hanging from the tree. And I found myself mouthing each name listed – Charles Curtis, Hollis Riles, Cairo Williams, Hog Wilson, Bernice Raspberry, Smead Stith, Baillie Crutchfield – and perhaps in this way, recognising, infinitesimally, each victim.

I was surrounded by older white Americans, older African Americans, a group of Africans in their patterned dashikis. Everyone was quiet, absorbed in their own journey.

I was uncomfortably conscious of how the design of the headstones pulled me, the visitor, into the position of the white voyeurs encouraged to come and witness the event. It reinforced the calculated desire of the white mobs to show that they had the power to terrorise entire communities of colour. It also made me painfully aware of the profoundly different experiences we, the visitors, were sharing, close physically in this moment but significantly distant in our own histories. 

800 six-foot monuments hang in rows, with each coffin shape representing a county where a racial terror lynching took place, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. Photo: Barry Lewis

Along the wall was a series of small cameo plaques, recording the reason given for an individual lynching. To the weight of the steel caskets above was now added the weight of the stories on the wall – each one a life brutally terminated for a slight, for slight infractions of white men’s rules, in force to humiliate black people: drinking from a white person’s well, marrying a black man, marrying a white woman. 


Vicious Spirals

The man behind this huge initiative is Bryan Stevenson. A justice advocate, he has a bold vision of asking America to confront the true legacy of slavery and specifically of racial terror which he connects directly to today’s mass incarceration and excessive sentencing.

For Stevenson, there is a continuation of the same racist narrative that mutated from the belief of white supremacy – that black people were inferior – into an extension that they were dangerous.

‘Black codes’ – introduced in the South for fabricated crimes such as loitering – legitimised the justice system to brand African Americans as felons and to continue slavery for white profit in the form of convict leasing. In a vicious spiral, this narrative, with felony and disenfranchisement at its centre, continues today.

A lawyer and social justice activist, Stevenson founded the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery and guaranteed a defence of anyone in Alabama sentenced to the death penalty. Alabama was the only state at the time that did not provide legal assistance to people on death row.

The first EJI offices were near the landing at the Alabama River where slaves were unloaded on arrival. Stevenson looked around at the number of monuments devoted to Confederate heroes and found virtually nothing to mark – and recognise – the parallel history of slavery and its contribution to American development and wealth.

The Memorial for Peace and Justice is in a run-down area of central Montgomery, close by the route taken by the 1965 civil rights marchers. Photo: Barry Lewis

I found myself looking at the streets of Montgomery through Stevenson’s lens. Astonishingly, there is no statue commemorating Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Although there is now a memorial trail of the 1965 March and an abundance of Civil Rights history sites, the Confederate presence feels palpably stronger.

The complexity and divisions in this city became more and more apparent at every turn. Alabama, it is clear, is both the most relevant place for Stevenson to start a new process of historical acknowledgement but also the toughest.

America has two historical narratives – one white, one black – and this division is rarely addressed, let alone shared and represented in the national landscape.


Landscapes of Persuasion

Following a long wall dedicated to the many undocumented victims, I continued to the centre of the spiral, called Memorial Square. Here is an unmarked spot from which it is unavoidable not to look down and imagine the crowds invited to witness, accept and welcome this public crime of killing. 

I shared the central space with a Jewish teenager, one of a school group visiting the site. As we exchanged places on the square, I asked him quietly what it was like for him being in this place. He hesitated: “Intense,” he said. “Very intense”. He then murmured he was at a loss to answer. I said thank you and we both moved on. He came up to me 10 minutes later, outside, and said he had given my question some thought.

“I’m Jewish and I know many Jews were active in supporting the Civil Rights Movement,” he told me. “I can be proud of that. But I’m also white. So I feel shame. I guess you’d have to say I have conflicting identities.”

I emerged from the central part of the memorial full of horror and guilt at what I had learned and how much I needed to question my own participation and privilege.

Duplicate county caskets wait in rows to be accepted by each county which has been invited to participate in the Remembrance Marker Project. Photo: Barry Lewis

I had come back to America at a time when many of the certainties of my life had been entirely capsized. I had left behind a UK that, since 2016, had changed and polarised in ways I had never imagined. With our isolationist policy, hell-bent on leaving Europe, a media-led group of Brexiters had used a distorted view of history to make the case for going it alone, at a time when global cooperation has never appeared more essential. Added into the mix was a rise of racist venom and hatred that I had not felt since the 1970s. Looming on the horizon, at the beginning of March, was the Coronavirus pandemic – revealing just how unprepared we were to deal with a global crisis.

I brought this mindset to Alabama, ready to absorb the pain of another country. But what I had not expected was that it consistently brought me back to my own context and my own history. And my white privilege – now sharply brought into focus globally by the death of George Floyd and the resulting protests and demands for equality and justice.

Outside the memorial building I found long rows of duplicate steel caskets lying in wait, with a rust-like patina on their surface. These are the caskets that Stevenson envisages will be accepted by each individual county and erected in their soil, not only to recognise the victims of lynching, but for each community to begin its own local process of acknowledgement and responsibility for the past.

He has talked of this Community Remembrance Marker project as being a way of creating a “landscape of persuasion”. His concept is to populate the American landscape with a different representation of history and to begin a process of reflection and healing. But, the core of his vision is to address racial bias and make sentencing changes in the criminal justice system and to halt the insidious route towards felony and disenfranchisement. 

Lynchings were a national phenomenon in the US, so there is a casket for each of the 800 counties where it occurred at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. Photo: Barry Lewis

It is a measure of the emotional and political distance that there is to travel that few counties have accepted the invitation to take part in the initiative. Stevenson fully recognises the enormity of the task. He is shaping a journey of intimidating scale, but his vision invites all of us to take that journey with him, held by a compassion that makes it possible. 


The Soil of the Future

The Legacy Museum is close by and it continues the experience with some highly innovative storytelling, including two specific encounters that registered intensely with me.

The first was meeting a wall of transparent urns, filled with earth – the result of volunteers collecting soil from lynching sites and bringing it to the museum.

Watching videos of people talk about taking the blood and DNA in the soil to a place where it will be respected rather than leaving it by the roadside, is to meet truth in a stark, visceral and undeniable way. Bryan Stevenson has expressed the impact of this initiative as rooted in the earth: “In this soil, there is the sweat of the enslaved. In the soil, there is the blood of victims of racial violence and lynching. But, in the soil, there is also the opportunity for new life, a chance to grow something hopeful and healing for the future.”

We listened to a story on the radio that brought this sharply home, about a volunteer who was digging up earth on a lynching site in Alabama. A car pulled up on the road alongside her and a white man rolled down the window to ask what she was doing. She said that, for one moment, she fell back into a form of fear. But then she had the courage to raise her eyes to his and explain exactly what she was doing. He said that his family had owned this land for decades and had no idea about the lynching. He then opened the door, came over to her and asked if he could help dig. Together they filled the urn. 

Montgomery’s Civil Rights museums tend to focus on the past. The EJI seeks to go further and use the past to address the present and the future. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness outlined how the ‘War on Drugs’ enabled low-level crime to be over-punished meaning that a significant number of African American men could be categorised as felons and have their voting rights removed.

I’m Jewish and I know many Jews were active in supporting the Civil Rights Movement. I can be proud of that. But I’m also white. So I feel shame. I guess you’d have to say I have conflicting identities.

A teenager visiting the memorial

The contemporary legacy of slavery is clearly outlined in the museum: 70% of American prisoners are non-white and one in nine black men under 25 are in jail or prison, on probation or on parole. 

The second encounter to resonate with me was to turn from the wall of incarceration facts to the experience of sitting in a prison visitor booth and lifting the phone to hear the voice of a man on death row talking to me, while watching a life size video of him,  eye to eye, face to face.

Anthony Hinton was on death row for 30 years before he proved his innocence. Now a key advocate for EJI, Hinton describes the daily burden of being unlawfully convicted and then asks: “What would you do? What would you think each day? For all those years?” Most importantly, he asks the question: “Who do you think you would be when you came out?” This is an overwhelming piece of empathetic drama that emphasises the presumption of guilt forced on to African Americans. One of the guides told me that this is one of the strongest memories visitors, especially young people, take away from the museum. 


Suppression Continues

I came out into the afternoon air and the voice of Anthony Hinton swirled round inside me. Not only did I question my own white privilege, I also wondered what my legacy museum would be. What would be inside a British museum dedicated to the entire history of the British Empire and the cost of our wealth?

But first I wanted to find out how voting on Super Tuesday was going. Voting for, among other things, a Democrat who might take down Donald Trump and halt the rise of the alt-right and new levels of white supremacy racism.

The civil rights activists, led by Dr King had fought for the right to register black votes in 1965. But in Alabama, it is still not easy to vote.

In a grim echo of the fight for citizen rights over half a century ago, this state continues to be one of the most difficult places for an eligible voter to register and cast a ballot.

Voter suppression is rife in Alabama: a March 2020 report by the Southern Poverty Law Centre shows that it is difficult to register and to vote, especially for African Americans. Alabama and its Governor Kay Ivey deem the vote as a privilege to be protected rather than a right for all. Photo: Barry Lewis

This voter suppression applies significantly more to African Americans: purged voter rolls, 31 driver’s license offices shut down (the easiest way to get the required photo ID), a closure of polling stations in mostly black counties as well as felony disenfranchisement schemes.

We came across a school voting station, with its entrance a forest of voting signs, all in the same tones of red and blue. The system seemed impenetrable. We were handed an official guide ballot and rapidly drowned in a sea of print – 11 ballots, 46 names, options of politicians, judges, education board at national, state and county level. 

It is feared that voter suppression, especially among African American communities, will be a key element of Trump’s campaign for re-election in November. The Democratic nominee for the presidency, Joe Biden, had come to church in Selma for the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and spoke of the new rise in hate under Trump: “If you give hate any breathing room, it comes back.” Biden won the vote, largely with the support of the black churches but, in the aftermath of Floyd’s death and anti-Trump feeling, he is not attracting the younger, protesting voters.

As the scale of Stevenson’s task grew clearer, so did the realisation that I needed to go on my own journey – both back through my life and also back to Britain, to look with different eyes at my own history and the narratives that are still so heavily perpetuated. Time for home truths. 


Home Truths

Since returning to London and being in self-isolation, I have embarked on a late-in-life white supremacy journey.

Layla Saad and her book Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor has been a revelation, along with Bryan Stevenson, Akala, Afua Hirsch and Katwant Bhopal. Saad especially has directed me, stage by stage, with piercing accuracy, to examine all the many aspects of white privilege, fragility and silence as well as shattering any notion that it is people of colour who have the responsibility to ‘dismantle white supremacy’. The work starts with me. 

I went to Alabama with a mindset of white, privileged curiosity and the desire to tell a story about ‘somewhere else’. But the experience took me on a much deeper journey back into hard truths about my own whiteness, our dark imperialist past, and how we have turned a blind eye to our legacy.

We need to be much closer to all aspects of our past, to stand below the weight of the steel caskets, to intone the names of the dead, to stand face to face with a statue the same height as ourselves. We need to process these experiences in our bodies as well as into our minds in order to for them to disturb us enough for change. The journey, Saad says, to be a good ancestor requires truth, commitment and the courage to love on a greater scale than we have ever done.

What would be our Memorial to Equality and Justice here in the UK? What would be our Markers within each and every community affected by our colonialism? What would it take to have the courage together to address the systemic racism deep in our cultural DNA?

To bring the legacy of Empire – so far away from our small island – closer to our consciousness? To have a new ‘landscape of persuasion’ across Britain so that individually and collectively we can address our past and move towards a greater level of equality and justice?


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