Alabama History Travel

Defending and Claiming Freedom: A Memorial Day Weekend Visit to Montgomery, Alabama

Memorial Day is set aside to remember the lives of soldiers who died fighting for our freedom. During a Memorial Day-weekend visit to a new museum and memorial dedicated to lynching in America, I had the opportunity to also remember those who were killed in pursuit of that freedom.

Lynched for striking to protest low wages.
… for organizing black voters.
… for “standing around” in a white neighborhood.
… for knocking on a white woman’s front door.
… for annoying a white woman.
… for complaining about the recent lynching of her husband – the father of her unborn child.

These are just a few of thousands of documented accounts of African Americans killed by lynching. My husband and I spent Memorial Day weekend in Alabama’s Black Belt to tour a new museum and memorial dedicated to furthering visitors’ understanding of this disregarded part of our country’s history.

I realize that Memorial Day is set aside to remember the lives of those who died while serving in our nation’s armed forces, defending our freedom. I do not want to take away from that. During our visit to these somber sites on Memorial Day weekend, however, I couldn’t help but reflect on the lives of the Black Americans who were threatened, tortured, terrorized, and killed in pursuit of that freedom.

Located on the site of a former warehouse in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, where Black people were enslaved, The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration tells the story of the nation’s legacy of slavery and its evolution into racial terror, Jim Crow, and modern-day mass incarceration. From slave narratives and slave catalogs to letters and interviews sent to the Equal Justice Initiative from those behind bars, these first-person accounts provide an intimate look of how an ideology of white supremacy has led to systemic racism in its various forms.

Less than a mile from the Legacy Museum is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, an outdoor memorial dedicated to the thousands of Black men and women who were lynched in the United States. Hundreds of rust-colored, steel monuments are projected from the ceiling as far as the eye can see, representing each county in the United States where documented lynchings of African Americans took place. Walking into the covered pavilion and seeing each of the six-foot columns engraved with the names – and the “unknowns” – and the dates when they were murdered took my breath away. Identical monuments lie flat in the area outside of the suspended ones, “waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent.”

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice | Montgomery, Alabama
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice | Montgomery, Alabama

My maternal great-great-grandfather, Jackson Rice, was among the more than 4,400 Africans Americans lynched. He was killed near my hometown in Conway County, Arkansas, in November 1891 and is listed as William Rice on the marker at the Memorial. My husband does genealogy research and wrote about his death on his “Genealogics” blog back in June 2016. Our hope is to find the site near where the lynching took place and collect dirt to send to the Equal Justice Initiative as part of its Community Remembrance Project.

Soil from lynching sites is on display in this case at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and also in individually marked jars at the Legacy Museum.
Soil from lynching sites is on display in this case at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and also in individually marked jars at the Legacy Museum.

Our visit to Montgomery was my first visit to Alabama’s Black Belt, so we also saw historic sites such as Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pastored from 1954 to 1960 as well as the site where Rosa Parks was arrested, sparking the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott. On our way back to Arkansas, we drove – in the opposite direction – the 54-mile route of the Selma-to-Montgomery March along Highway 80 and stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge where voting rights activists were confronted and attacked by law enforcement on “Bloody Sunday.”

Adena in Selma on the Edmund Pettus Bridgea
Me being a tourist in Selma on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the “Bloody Sunday” attack on voting rights marchers by law enforcement during the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March

May we never forget the price of freedom and continue to do what we can to ensure it is available to all.

“Raise Up” (2016) by Hank Willis Thomas | The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama
“Raise Up” (2016) by Hank Willis Thomas | The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama

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