(part of an ongoing series about activities during my sabbatical)
The next stop on our journey was the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Located near the site of a rail station where thousands of Black people were trafficked into forced labor, the Legacy Museum traces the story of Black people from slavery to mass incarceration. The Museum is the work of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Founded by Bryan Stevenson, EJI is a “nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons. We challenge the death penalty and excessive punishment and we provide re-entry assistance to formerly incarcerated people.” (https://eji.org/about/) You may be familiar with the name and work of Bryan Stevenson through his book, which was also made into a movie, “Just Mercy.”
The museum’s full description is “The Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration” and that is the story it tells. Photography is prohibited in the museum so I am not able to share any pictures from inside, but you can view some on the museum’s website: https://museumandmemorial.eji.
The prohibition of pictures seeks to preserve the solemnity of the story being told and also encourages visitors to enter in, rather than simply being spectators. And that is what it does, as you enter to a glass wall on which you see the ocean waves rolling back and forth, a stirring picture of the middle passage which saw millions of Africans trafficked to the Americas (with many ending up in Central and South America as well as the Caribbean.)
From there, it traces the story and experience of Black people in America, from the economics of slavery to the segregation of the Jim Crow era to modern day incarceration. Again, we spent many hours there and were able to take in only a portion of all that we saw and learned.
There are several distinct elements of the Legacy Museum I want to highlight. The first is the ways in which it showed how the US legal system was used to perpetrate, further, and protect racial segregation as well as abuse of Black people. I remember learning several of the key cases in US history class but the exhibits and stories told at the museum helped put them in historical context and elucidate the implications and ramifications of key decisions like Dred Scott, Plessy v Ferguson, and Brown v. Board of Education.
In instances like Dred Scott and Plessy v Ferguson, the Supreme Court codified forms of racism and segregation, ruling in the former that people of African descent could not claim US citizenship and that a previous federal legislation prohibiting slavery in the north was unconstitutional because it "deprives citizens of their [slave] property without due process of law". The latter decision enshrined the idea of separate but equal, thereby allowing segregation to continue with the backing of US law. The Legacy Museum had some extensive displays which showed how not just these cases, but dozens of others, created a legal system which backed and furthered racism and segregation, all backed and supported by the US Supreme Court and legal system.
It was these decisions and the policies that flowed from them that led to the mass incarceration we see in the United States today. What do we mean by mass incarceration. Consider this: “While the United States constitutes only 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of its incarcerated populace … We currently have more jails and prisons than degree-granting colleges and universities.” (Dominique Gilliard, Rethinking Incarceration, p27.) The number of people in jail in the US has grown 700% since 1980 although crime rates have remained stable and the rate for African-Americans is nearly triple that of whites. If you want to know more about this story, I would encourage you to read Gilliard’s book noted above (note: Dominique serves with the Covenant Church in its mission priority of Love Mercy, Do Justice
The second thing I want to highlight from our trip to the Legacy Museum was the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The Memorial is a part of the same work of EJI and is located just a few blocks from the Legacy Museum. The memorial is dedicated to the legacy of Black people terrorized by lynching. As with all of the topics, there is much to cover and this I want to offer simply a few key points.
While the temptation may be to think of these things as something of the past that we have moved beyond, it’s a bit more complicated than that. We have made great progress as a nation and are moving toward the ideals propounded in our founding documents, in large part due to the courage and hard work of many individuals. This should be recognized and celebrated. Then, why build memorials and museums like these. Bryan Stevenson says it far better than I can, “Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.” The goal is to promote hope and a commitment to equality and just treatment for all, something we all should support as followers of Jesus.
We will remember,