MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Ever since I began seeing articles and news segments about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice I wanted to visit it. One could almost say I felt compelled. Now, having been there, I think every American should make a point to experience it first hand.
The front of the visitor center, which sits across from the actual memorial, contains the gift shop, and a variety of unpleasant facts that many people would just as soon either forget or remain ignorant about. At the entrance, there is a memorial wall with water running over it that lists those who were lynched after 1950. Trust me when I say there is not enough water on the planet to wash away the grief, the horror, and yes, the shame.
Inside, there is a map of Alabama that shows the sites of the many lynchings in Alabama. It reflects the ugly underside of America. Next to that map, is a whole wall full of clear glass, gallon jars of soil. Each jar has the name of the person who was murdered, and where and when the murder took place.
As a Pagan, the idea of collecting soil from the site of a lynching, whether it retains even a tiny trace of the blood spilled on it or not, makes it a sacrament. Those simple gallon glass jars have become reliquaries. Standing in front of that wall caused tears to spill down my face. Just thinking about it now produces the same effect.
To say I was deeply affected would be an understatement. A security guard asked me if I was okay. I wanted to say, “Fuck no, I am not okay. How can anyone see this and be okay?” Instead, I thanked him and only said it was overwhelming. And then I thought to myself I was not sure how I would make it through the rest of site if this was how I reacted to the beginning.
As I made my way across the drive to the entrance to the memorial, I had another thought. If the millions of people who were enslaved could endure, if all of their descendents could endure, if all of the victims from slavery to lynchings to modern-day redlining and other forms of oppression could manage to not just endure their maltreatment, but in some cases beat unbelievable odds and thrive, then I needed to pull myself together and get on with it.
I went through the security checkpoint, where one of the gentlemen working the station said I sounded like I was dealing with allergies. I told him that no, it was my reaction to the horror of the history represented. His response was a knowing look of quiet acknowledgement. It made me wonder what kind of people he sees every day, what their reactions are like. I was too close to being undone to ask. Maybe on the next trip I will ask.
Once through security, the first thing that stands out is a sculpture of men and women in chains. It is powerful, visceral, a horrible testament to the oppression so prevalent in American history. In the background and up the hill, the iron pillars of the memorial stand and hang in stark relief. All along the walls leading to the memorial there are signs detailing facts about slavery, oppression, and racial injustice.
Once I reached the memorial, I found it simply staggering, as I am sure it is intended to be. Each iron pylon is engraved with a county and state, and then the name of those lynched there with the date it happened. Once again, stark. Brutal in its simplicity. Rows and rows upon rows of these iron pillars that seem to stretch on to infinity. The site is constructed in somewhat of a spiral so that as you circle through the site, they are in alphabetical order.
At the beginning of the pillars or pylons, they are mounted to the ceiling on steel rods but rest on the floor. As you make your way through the site, they become suspended until you are walking below them, with the state and county engraved on the ends. The lowest level contains wall with the inscription:
“Thousands of African Americans are unknown victims of racial terror lynchings whose deaths cannot be documented, many whose names will never be known. They are all honored here.”
Water falls over the wall in a constant stream. Simple and poignant. In front of it is a large clear box on an iron base that contains soil taken from the sites of over two dozen lynchings. Another sacrament and requilary. While the many victims may be nameless, they have the combined soil from these places. Many places where lynchings happened have no marker of the violence took place. Nothing to remind passersby that someone lost their life on that spot merely due to the color of their skin.
Two young men who act as interpreters for the site stand at the beginning of the area where the iron pillars begin to be suspended. One of them greeted me and asked me if I knew “about all of this.” I asked him whether he meant the memorial or the lynchings. He said the lynchings and the history of racial oppression and injustice. I told him I did, and that I was raised by a mother who was progressive when it came to racial matters and was married to man of Hispanic and Native American origin.
We talked about the site, and about humanity – how both were amazing and awful at the same time. He also told me that many of the people who have visited the site had no clue or knowledge about the history of racial oppression and injustice, lynchings, or anything that related to the history of such practices. By “people” I’m sure he meant “white people,” because I simply cannot imagine any person of color who grew up in America not knowing. They live in a country that routinely still discriminates at every possible turn.
Once I had traveled through all the suspended pillars or pylons, I came outside to more rows of iron pillars. Hundreds. These were lying flat on the ground. Somehow, these were even more poignant for me than the rest. I wandered through them with a heavy heart. Just one of these iron pillars would be too many. To be confronted with the reality of hundreds was horrific.
I feel like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is incredibly important, especially at a time when we seem to be experiencing a major resurgence of in-your-face racism, and hate crimes have soared by 400% in the past few years. We need to fully realize and accept that while racism is endemic to our culture and society, it does not need to, and cannot continue to be so. Individually, we each have a choice and opportunity to make a difference. As Pagans, and magical practitioners, we have a unique set of tools that can be brought to bear and affect real change.
I cannot erased the misdeeds of my ancestors, whatever they might be. I can, however, be deliberate and concise in the choices I make. I can go out of my way to make sure that whatever I am involved with is inclusive. Whenever I have a platform, I can use it to elevate the voices that are not being heard. I can help amplify the messages of those that need boosting. These are simple things we can all do, if we choose.
One other thing that struck me about the memorial was the beauty of the garden at the front. The grounds of the entire site are immaculate, well-tended, and lush. They are also dotted with signs to remind visitors that it is a sacred site and should be treated with respect. So despite the pain, grief and horror the memorial contains, it also exhibits the promise of what can be, the beauty that can come from endurance, perseverance, and the ability to imagine a better future.