Visiting the the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

I had the chance last week to go to Montgomery, Alabama to attend the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum.

The short version of the story is: if you care about the history of the United States, and about questions of race, justice and the criminal justice system, you should find a way to get to Montgomery, to see it for yourself.

Both the museum and monument are flawlessly executed. They somehow co-mingle beauty, sorrow, outrage and objectivity in ways I’ve never experienced.

The museum, which I went to first, is unlike any I’ve ever gone to. While most museums of this type feel like an educational collection of history, facts and stories, the Legacy Museum has a thesis that it states strongly and clearly: that there is clear through-line from the forceful extraction of 12 million Africans from their homes (2 million of whom died in passage), to the institution of slavery, to the history of lynching, to the Civil War, to segregation, and ultimately to today’s criminal justice system which systematically enforces mass incarceration of people of color.

While I thought I was familiar with much of this history, I had not understood, until my time at the Legacy Museum, the stubborn persistence of a system of sanctioned, legalized, socially-acceptable oppression of people of color. I had not seen how this oppression has evolved over time without any proper reckoning. I had not seen, until I saw the Museum and heard the words of Bryan Stevenson, whose Equal Justice Initiative conceived of and executed this massive undertaking, that if you cannot go to South Africa without hearing about and grappling with apartheid, and if you cannot go to Rwanda without hearing about and grappling with the Rwandan genocide, and if you cannot go to Germany without hearing about and grappling with the Holocaust, then you should not be able to come to the United States without hearing about and grappling with the history of slavery and lynching.

If the Legacy Museum is a distilled, forceful argument, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is, even on its opening day, a timeless witness to violence, cruelty, and a hundreds-of-years wide stain on the history and narrative of the United States. As I walked through the memorial, I felt that I was standing on sacred ground, and that I was bearing witness to the souls of lost lynching victims who were killed for walking too close to a white woman, or demanding a receipt at a store, or for acting “disrespectful” to a white person.

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Photo credit: Audra Melton for The New York Times

To imagine that black men, women, boys and girls were systematically and publicly murdered, and that, beyond being implicitly sanctioned, these lynchings often drew jeering crowds of hundreds or thousands, crowds so big that food vendors would arrive to sell popcorn…I found this to be so deeply shameful and disturbing that I’m still trying to understand how this could possibly be part of our recent history.

I encourage you to read more about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, and to find a way to see them for yourself.

Bryan Stevenson – Proximity

The other day, I had the honor and privilege to hear Bryan Stevenson speak in a small group setting. Bryan is a lawyer and a fighter for justice and racial equality, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative who has a list of accolades and awards too long to tackle properly.

Among other things, his TED talk, which has been viewed more than two million times, apparently got the “longest and loudest standing ovation in TED history”; he’s recently written a book that I’ve just bought called Just Mercy (it has a 4.9 out of 5 star rating on Amazon); he will be arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court in March about mandatory sentencing; and he has received the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU’s) highest honor, the National Medal of Liberty.

In addition to being a true fighter for rights and justice, someone who is living on the front lines every day, Bryan is one of the most compelling, articulate, and inspiring speakers I have ever had the pleasure to hear. Bryan is an orator, someone who weaves together structure and narrative, deep intellect and cutting analysis, all shared through poignant and often heart-wrenching stories. The man is a gift to the world.

Bryan talked about four things that need to happen to create social change:

  1. Proximity.
    Simple as it sounds, Bryan argues that the first thing we have to do to fight injustice is to get proximate to injustice, to show up and see things with our own eyes. When we see what Bryan sees (or whatever other issue we choose to see), we will, in Bryan’s estimation, have no choice but to act. As important, Bryan reminds us, the only solutions that work are the ones that are developed when one has an up-close view of a problem.
  2. Changing the narrative. This was a specific point that Bryan was making about the narrative of racial injustice in the US – What is really going on, Brain asks us, when, say, a 14 year old black boy lashes out and throws a book at a teacher? Is the solution to incarcerate that child or to ask what happens to a child who has lived for 14 years surrounded by violence? – but I believe this point is universal. For nearly all issues there’s an unspoken but powerful story that fortifies the status quo.
  3. Keep hopeful. We give up on issues that we believe are hopeless, wrongs that we tell ourselves simply cannot be righted. In Bryan’s words, “injustice prevails when hopelessness persists.”
  4. Do uncomfortable things. (Bryan admitted, each of his four steps gets harder and harder.) What I heard here is Bryan saying out loud that we simply cannot make real and lasting change if we stay comfortable. Whether it is the people who led or joined the civil rights movement (or any other movement that created large-scale change), each and every person made a decision at a critical juncture that they were willing to be uncomfortable and put themselves on the line.

All of these points deserve to be printed and pasted up on our walls as daily reminders of the work we have to do.

And when I take a big step back, what strikes me is that one of the most pernicious and unseen problems of our runaway economic inequality is the reduction in proximity. While it is easier than ever to feel that the world is more global than ever, more connected than ever, in reality it is easier than ever to separate: to see only the news we’ve told Google we like to read, to get updates only from Facebook friends, to live in houses and neighborhoods and go to hotels (whether here or 5,000 miles away) that are only for “people like us…,” to tell ourselves a story of connection and globalization and democratization of information when really we walk around surrounded by bubbles that we refuse to pop, insulating ourselves from anything really, truly foreign.

I don’t have a lot of hope that the momentum towards greater economic inequality will lessen any time soon, but one of the things that Bryan’s talk made me wonder is whether we would have more leverage in creating change if we worked directly on this question of proximity, and on creating productive pathways to action that, together with that proximity, help people start doing useful work more quickly.