After James Cone passed away earlier in the year, a religion professor from the college where I chaplain, offered to start a student book club featuring Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. The group began in the summer and she asked my husband and me to join. We gladly accepted and found ourselves in the first meeting with five college students. The professor traveled for parts of the summer so Mike and I often found ourselves as the surrogate hosts. As we journeyed through the book together, several questions came up about the lynching era in America. All of the college students who volunteered for the book club are Caucasian and as a result, the content was sobering, to say the least. As we took turns reading aloud, there were moments where we would simply stop because of the shock, sorrow, or power of what we had just read. We often found ourselves with more questions than answers about how to engage the things we were learning. This is what led us to plan an informal group trip to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.
When we arrived, the museum was full to capacity and so we walked to the Memorial for Peace and Justice just down the street. The site is a striking outdoor structure where visitors are led through a winding path of art and information. At the very beginning is a life-sized sculpture depicting several slaves from the transatlantic slave trade. Their faces are filled with horror, dismay, and grief. The stone statues all wear rusted iron chains around their necks, feet, and hands that are all linked together. We had only been there a few minutes when we heard a small, African-American child ask her parent, ” Why are they wearing chains?”
Overhearing the adult’s careful and honest answer was the first of many beautifully uncomfortable moments for me. I became immediately aware of my whiteness and I had to remind myself that it was okay to feel sadness, anger, or dismay as I absorbed the exhibit. I did not want to turn down the volume on the Holy Spirit’s voice rolling through the prophetic history of my black brothers and sisters.
And the history was everywhere.
Mixed in with the exhibit was a quilt-work of colorful, matching t-shirts. It dawned on us that several African-American family reunion groups were also visiting the memorial that day. I recently heard a black colleague of mine speak about the fragmented memory of the African diaspora. She spoke of her own dismembered family tree and how she was still trying to piece together her history. Perhaps this is why so many of these groups chose this destination for their family reunion. The collision of past and present made the whole display even more poignant.
As you walk through the main section of the memorial, you come face to face with eye level rusted squares that each bears the name of a county and state. Below the county are the names of the persons lynched there. Most had names, but only some had dates. As you walk through this seemly endless forest of markers, the squares move off the ground and hang suspended from the ceiling of the structure while the platform descends causing you to crane your neck up to read the information. Before you know it, you are walking directly beneath these markers that now hang above your head, suspended like the lynched bodies they represent. On the walls are lists of “reasons” why persons were lynched. They include such “crimes” as “walking in a white neighborhood,” “leaning against a fence,” “not calling a white man ‘sir’,” and other similar infractions. Some of the reasons echoed things I had recently seen on the news where black people had the cops called on them for sleeping in their dorm common room, going to their neighborhood pool, or walking down the street. This connection was no coincidence and I would soon find out why.
The Legacy Museum was relatively small and accessible but had more information and material than I could read in a weekend. I could visit several more times and still find things that I didn’t get a chance to read or see. The main objectives of these exhibits displayed a history driven by patterns. The transatlantic slave trade set a precedent in this country for how we viewed and understood black people. Ever since the Emancipation Proclamation we have continued patterns that reflect that same mindset and ideology that whites are ontologically superior to dark-skinned people. I have never seen it laid out so well before but as it walked through reconstruction, sharecroppers, lynching’s, Jim Crow, segregation, civil rights, and the school-to-prison pipeline there was no mistaking the common thread. Even though the institution of slavery was deemed illegal, the mindset that drove the ideals of slavery has continued to evolve and take different shapes generation after generation. One thing is for sure, that the supremacy of the white race was the motivating factor behind these patterns. While I would like to blame extremists like the KKK, it was devastating to observe how this engagement of white supremacy was carried out not just by every day, ordinary people but that it was supported by professing Christians. There were direct quotes from politicians and Christian leaders who, in no uncertain terms spoke about our “Christian duty” to keep black people from infiltrating our white culture. We did this in the name of God.
As we drove the five hours it took to get back home, we reflected with our students about the things we had seen and learned. We tried to let that information make us uncomfortable enough to open ourselves to whatever God might possibly be transforming in our lives so that we can do more than just remember. One of our biggest takeaways from this trip was how even though laws have been passed and battles have been won in the courts, the perpetuation of white supremacy and the evolution of slavery that continues into our present day is the result of the fact that laws cannot change the heart. And we are no strangers to this reality because in Christianity this is a matter at the very center of our gospel. While it is good and right to fight against injustice in the courts, the cycle will never be broken until hearts are transformed through Christ. To this end, the church has a unique and important calling. If we truly believe this gospel and we believe that it holds the key to change society and break this pattern of systemic racism and hate, then we hold that Christ is truly the hope of the world and we are called into His purposes for our society. Only Christ can change our hearts and transform the fear and hate that plagues our lives. Only Christ can truly help us understand the human equality found at the foot of the cross. The historic pattern of racism is very real and we shouldn’t turn our heads away from looking directly at what is still happening to our African-American brothers and sisters. The church has a beautiful calling to be ministers of reconciliation; to be kingdom people of justice and mercy. But before we can see how God is moving in this arena, we need to be ready to learn and listen. There is still a lot to absorb and I hope, by God’s grace, that I can keep the volume turned up on everything I saw and heard that day.