A Freedom Odyssey

Omar Sanchez

WE WENT TO many places on the Mississippi Freedom Project Trip this summer — from Tallahassee, Florida to Glendora, Mississippi to Elaine, Arkansas, and many places in between. But there is one stop that stood out to me: Montgomery, Alabama.

From our college history lessons we know that Montgomery was in the center of the Civil Rights Movement with moments like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King’s march to Montgomery from Selma, and the Freedom Rides. Though we did get to experience the different landmarks around Montgomery, our main stops were the Equal Justice Initiative’s “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration” museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

The Equal Justice Initiative Museum is beautifully ironic because the building was a warehouse that housed Black slaves, and now it portrays the history of African Americans in Alabama. The first thing that you meet when you walk in are holographic projections of people who were held as slaves, telling their tragic stories and begging to be set free.

Then you start to learn about the injustices of Jim Crow. Seeing those signs telling Black people to stay out almost feels unreal, because it’s different to see them in person compared to seeing them in a textbook. What stood out to me, though, was that some of the segregation signs were aimed at Mexicans and Puerto Ricans as well which is something that you don’t hear about often.

As you continue through the museum you start to learn about the War on Drugs and the term “super predators.” I never really understood until that moment that the War on Drugs and the term “super predator” were an integral part of sys­temic racism. Such terms were used by the state to create fear about minority communities so they could be imprisoned and oppressed.

In other words, the government has rebranded slavery as mass incarceration. As you walk through the museum you start to notice that there’s always new laws or new tools developed by the government to keep people of color down, whether it be slavery, Jim Crow or mass incarceration.

The second part of the Equal Justice Initiative complex is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice less than a mile down the road. This memorial is dedicated to people who were victims of lynching or other forms of anti-Black violence. One thing that is always tough is trying to find a way to show trauma and injustice without exploiting people, but I think the architect showcased the trauma in a respectful way.

You go through this maze-like structure with these pillars that have names of lynching victims from different counties, and as you go they keep getting higher and higher to symbolize hanged lynching victims. What makes this memorial different is that each pillar has a twin that is supposed to be claimed by the respective counties.

Our guide told us that there were various counties interested in claiming their respective marker, but they want it for prestige, not to reclaim their history. The guide told our group that the museum wanted counties to use the markers as living curriculum to educate local residents, tell the stories of the people who were lost, and take responsibility for the actions of their ancestors.

EJI is hoping that each county would go through a racial Truth and Reconciliation Process to educate the entire community about specific incidents of racial pogroms and anti-Black violence. Counties need to understand that this process will take years. Whether these counties are willing to put in that work will decide if they are truly deserving of reclaiming their memorial marker.

Going forward, I would like to see new museums focus on incidents of targeted “minority” groups, because without this knowledge we will never be able to create an equitable society. In the South, there aren’t enough museums that properly tell the history and injustices that minority groups have faced.

When I saw what the Equal Justice Initiative has created, it showed me what I was missing. I want this for my community and other communities. We each deserve for our stories to be told. That’s my call to action: I want museums like this, I want classes that teach that history, I want my history back.

January-February 2020, ATC 204