|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 19, 2019 at 2:00 AM|
The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration
The Equal Justice Initiative’s museum was overwhelming as it detailed the slave trade (by 1860,Montgomery was the capital of the domestic slave trade in Alabama) and how, after Emancipation, America continued to find new ways to oppress African-Americans.
After Reconstruction fell apart in 1877, Southern police often convicted African-Americans of small offenses (which usually only applied to non-white communities) and then leased them out to work in factories, mines and farms since 13th Amendment allowed for involuntary servitude for incarcerated persons. By 1898, 73% of Alabama state revenue was from convict leasing.
Although convict leasing was outlawed in 1928, African-Americans were still disproportionately imprisoned. And states added segregation laws, adding a whole extra set of reasons to lock up African-Americans, for offenses such as playing checkers with someone of another race. Then, with the War on Drugs, the numbers of those incarcerated increased dramatically. Very vivid accounts of prison life in the museum underscored the terror and hopelessness of being locked up and the dehumanizing treatment of our fellow citizens.
As we grieved over the reality of what was done to our African-American siblings, some of us also struggled with the words of those who shared our white skin. We heard white men who justified slavery as God’s intention. Pastors who quoted from our holy scriptures as a tool of oppression and violence. And senators who defended segregation as a way to protect their "habits, traditions and way of life," as if their way of life was more important than the freedom of their brothers and sisters.
As the museum detailed the reality of lynching as a public spectacle, they lifted up the reality that has shaken me especially this trip- that this system of dehumanization and oppression and violence has psychologically damaged the white persons who take part in it. It has taught us misplaced fear. It has enshrined a way of life created by oppressing others. It has made us think that our skin color, rather than our character and our treatment of others, is something that entitles us. And it has taught us that all of this is normal. And we can't just shake it off since it's in the air we breathe.
An African-American woman outside the museum asked one of our white participants, "Why does someone who looks like you come here?" The answer for me is that this is my history. This is what has formed me whether I wanted it or not. And if we're going to begin to repair what is, to change how we live into the future- we first have to look square at our history and what was done in our name.
After the pain of facing our shared past, there was a small room in the museum, bathed in light, with the faces of those who have defied the dominant story and worked to write a new one. It was solace and hope. It was the place where everyone could take a breath. And it felt somehow safe (even thought life for any of those surrounding us never was). Because in that place we were surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and that the evil of the world that we had just witnessed was not all there is.
And after that respite, we walked through the last hallway, which asked us the hard questions of “what now?” What should we do as foot soldiers in the movement toward justice and reconciliation? As people who care about inhumane treatment in jails and death sentences for juveniles? What are we, as Christian people, called to do to repent of our churches’ participation in and encouragement of racial injustice? What can we do now to change what will be?
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice
There aren’t words to describe the walk through the hanging iron blocks symbolizing the vicious murder of African-Americans- the 4000 people lynched between 1880 and 1940. Brothers and sisters killed so that another person could somehow feel more superior or powerful. Or because those in power were trying to defend their way of life that was built on oppression. It was horrifying to see our national disgrace hanging in front of us. A disgrace that was as close as our backyard, as we read the names of those from Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties in Maryland.
And it was pwoerful to see the Ida Wells forest- a statue of trees cut down, never allowed to grow. To know that this is part of the legacy of our American story.
And it felt like holy ground to have our brothers and sisters named and remembered. To have them receive the honor taken from them.
Montgomery Education Foundation
As we were emotionally exhausted and wondering where we go from here, Ms. Ruva Chimedza, Community Programs Coordinator for the Montgomery Education Foundation joined us back at the church. She helped us understand the public school system in Montgomery, which has the worst performing schools in a state ranked 47th in the nation for education and has recently come under state control in order to help keep their accreditation. She helped us understand magnet schools, charter schools, and traditional public schools and the tiered system of educational outcomes from them.
And then came the question, “How do we do better for ALL our children” rather than only looking out for our own? One option in Montgomery is a “conversion charter” where a group will take over a traditional school but allow all the same students to be there. It’s a way of radically reforming what is possible in one place without displacing students most in need of those interventions.
And she also told us about a hopeful program called “Network Nights” where anyone interested in public education- students, parents, community leaders- can come out, talk in small groups about whatever issues they feel need to be discussed. And each night ends with a “Match and Act” where people can bring up the needs they have and find someone else in the room who can meet that need. It doesn’t take much set up- just giving people a venue and a way to solve some of their own problems. And all it takes is people- students, parents and community members- who have hope that something can change and a desire to be an active part of that movement.
Pastor Tiffany Chaney from Gathered by Grace
Pastor Chaney, whose congregation works with Montgomery Education Foundation to support their efforts, is a mission developer (meaning a church planter) who developed Gathered by Grace especially for folks 18-40-ish who need a safe and welcome place to hear the powerful word of grace. They are doing church a new way with on-ling Bible studies and conversations about real-life topis and what the gospel has to say about them. It's doing what church has always done- speak grace and empower God's people to follow Jesus' way- in a way that makes sense to the community that gathers.
And part of that means doing what they can in the communtiy. Pastor Chaney said, “I believe that the kingdom of Jesus is real.” That when God gets to working, mighty things like happened in the book of Acts (especially chapter 4) might start happening again- like people sharing their goods and transforming their lives.
Her congregation has a “Life Happens” fund to support others in need of a little help- giving food help to those in rural areas who can’t access food pantries or helping pay funeral expenses for a daughter. And even though they’re far from the largest congregation in Montgomery, they worked to get books into public schools and serve in a support role to the Montgomery Youth Forum. Because the health and well-being of all people matter. And because this is what the church does when it trusts that the kingdom of Jesus is real and breaking in.
This is a story worth defending and living out. The one about grace. The one about sharing what we have so everyone has what they need. The one where community members come together to solve problems together and support young people. This is the gospel heritage to hold onto, the story we get to live into.