Note: posted on History for the Present, April 28, 2018
This week the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. In the heart of the South and in a town with a complicated racial history, the memorial is the first of its kind to recognize the painful history and legacy of slavery, lynching, racial segregation, Jim Crow, and police brutality. This new, long-overdue memorial is significant not only because it pays homage to the individual lives of human beings murdered through race hatred perpetrated by white people, but also for its dedication to continued efforts of racial justice. This is not just a memorial to the past, it is also an active memorial of the present and for the future. Because despite the Civil War, which ended the horrific institution of slavery; despite the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments enacted with the promise of racial equality; despite the Civil Rights movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and despite an unblemished and honorable eight years of America’s first black presidency, racism is alive in America; it continues to inflict pain and damage on the lives of black Americans. And, sadly, in the era of Trump it has a new voice.
To commemorate the opening of the memorial and to recognize its importance, a newspaper in Montgomery apologized for its past role in perpetrating white supremacy in Alabama and for failing to be a voice for the rights of all of its citizens. The editorial began: “We were wrong. On the day when people from across the globe come to our capital city to consider the sordid history of slavery and lynching and try to reconcile the horrors of our past, the Montgomery Advertiser recognizes its own shameful place in the history of these dastardly, murderous deeds.” The editorial concluded: “We must never be as wrong as this again.” In an interview this morning on NPR, the newspaper’s editor Bro Krift repeatedly employed the word “we” as he apologized for the newspaper and as he was talking about the newspaper’s history and the way in which it dehumanized black lynching victims and perpetuated Jim Crow in the South.
The use of the word “we” by the newspaper and its editor was deliberate, and, I believe, phenomenally important. No one alive today is personally responsible for slavery, and most white Americans are not white supremacists, nor do most of them actively engage in discrimination against their black fellow Americans. But some white people in America are active racists and some of them are in positions of authority to enact that racism against black people and other racialized “others.” More importantly, political, economic, educational, and other forms of institutionalized racism exist and continue to inflict damage on an entire group of our fellow Americans. Institutionalized racism represents not only America’s racist past and the legacy of that past, but it is also one of America’s biggest challenges. As the new memorial in Montgomery will bear witness to the racism that black Americans have faced for the entirety of American history, we must all bear witness that history. It is not black history, it is American history, it is our history.
As long as some of our fellow Americans face discrimination, hatred, and police brutality because of the color of their skin, then we are all responsible. We have an obligation to acknowledge that racism exists in America, to recognize the fact that in America whiteness unfairly equals privilege, and to be engaged in an effort to realize Abraham Lincoln’s new birth of freedom and Martin Luther King’s dream that all people be recognized not for the color of their skin but for the content of their character. I believe that sometimes simply choosing the right language is the easiest way to start. Bro Krift did not deflect his newspaper’s past sins upon on people long in the grave; he acknowledged that we must be sorry for past wrongs and we must not repeat the mistakes of history.
In 1900 in Mob Rule in New Orleans, which chronicled the horrific lynching of Robert Charles, Ida B. Wells wrote: “Men and women of America, are you proud of this record which the Anglo-Saxon race has made for itself? Your silence seems to say that you are. Your silence encourages a continuance of this sort of horror. Only by earnest, active, united endeavor to arouse public sentiment can we hope to put a stop to these demonstrations of American barbarism.”
Wells’ appeal from 118 years in the past hits very close to home, still shockingly pertinent. Racism is not a history problem. It is not a Southern problem or a rural problem. It is an American problem. And we all are responsible for its continued existence, and we all must be engaged in fighting it.
Suggested Sources to Consult:
- National Memorial for Peace and Justice website
- The Montgomery Advertiser editorial
- Bro Krift’s interview with Scott Simon on NPR
- Ida B. Wells, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892)
- Jane Addams, “Has the Emancipation Act Been Nullified by National Indifference,” The Survey, February 1913.
- Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (2018)
- Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (2017).
- Southern Poverty Law Center