Thoughts from GLIDE staff who attended our pilgrimage to Montgomery
On April 25, a group of 85 people from GLIDE, The Kitchen, the Rafiki Coalition and Stanford Graduate School of Education traveled to Montgomery, Alabama for the opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The trip was the culmination of a series of courses organized by Rabbi Michael Lezak, Isoke Femi and James Lin of GLIDE’s Center for Social Justice focusing on the issue of justice and reconciliation. We have come back from Montgomery with a range of feelings and thoughts concerning the deep connections between the history of the country and the ongoing challenges we as a society face here in the Bay Area. GLIDE continues to work for personal and social transformation toward a more just and equitable world. The following reflections from members of the Alabama trip speak to the power of this pilgrimage on our own understanding and resolve around the nature of the work ahead.
Ira: Throughout the day, I was most focused on the prejudice and discrimination our country has been through and how they are reflected in our present-day culture and legal system. As I was reading the exhibit descriptions in the Legacy Museum, I struggled with the statutes that were written into law specifically against people of color. The State of Maryland once wrote that a white women who became pregnant by a “negro” would be punished by the law.
Realizing how many aspects of our current society still discriminate against people made me somber. Years down the line from slavery, we experience yet try to ignore the direct effects of slavery and Jim Crow.
Janet: In the collaboration of the two communities, I really appreciated the way Rabbi Michael Lezak and the Kitchen framed the struggle of Black Americans in relationship to the Holocaust. One of the things that came up for me while we were doing the pre-, during and post-Alabama sessions was that, for Black Americans, we are still in our Holocaust. We never had our Nuremburg Trials or our “Banality of Evil” by Hannah Arendt or recognition from our government. We’re still being slaughtered. We’re still being shipped to camps, because I think of mass incarceration as that, that those are labor camps. So, there is a way in which as a Black American of my generation the wound is fresh, open and raw.
We are not that far removed from what we saw in Montgomery. My family was part of the Great Migration—that was my grandparents who migrated out of the south. I was five years old when those little girls were murdered in the church, in the bombing. I watched that on TV. And I feel like I see far too frequently the murder of black men by law enforcement authorities.
Iris: It was nice, but it was also sad. And I got homesick! I haven’t flown since I was thirteen. I didn’t have an appetite or any of that. The trip was good, it was a first-time experience for me, going to Alabama. It was sad, though. Especially when you go into the memorial and you see [the sculptures of] the people in chains, and the lady with the baby.
The other image that stays with me is the image of the woman in the Legacy Museum. She can hear her kids, but she can’t see them. She wanted to be with them, but she couldn’t be with them. Right beside that, there were holographs of two little kids, and for a moment I thought they were her kids. The little girl was talking about how she wanted to see her mom, how she missed her mom, and then the little girl started crying. That’s a strong image.
Karen (to read her whole post, check GLIDEsf on Medium): Like other countries around the world, we must confront our hard truths in order to heal and move beyond them. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, pointedly influenced by memorials to the Holocaust and South African apartheid, is more than a powerful statement — it’s a rallying cry for both humility and courage, which opens the door to real conversation about our dark shame and how it has impacted generations upon generations afterward.
It is my hope that this dialogue will grow, and one day lead to true equality and a more perfect practice of justice in America. At Glide, we start here in the Tenderloin, a densely populated low-income neighborhood in the center of the city that’s home to half of San Francisco’s homeless residents.
Lisa: I now understand that slavery and the racial terror and subjugation that followed it are not consigned to history, but rather infect every aspect of our civic life. Acknowledging and responding to that truth would be transformative.
In the words of Reverend William Barber (a speaker at the opening conference), “political lynching” continues to this day, threatening to “strangle the life out of our democracy.”
Dereik: Stories that elderly people tell you about how they were raised and how things were in their households, what that generation was like, we should take heed of those. As a child growing up, my great-grandma and grandpa would tell me stories about how they survived and handled certain situations. When I got inside the Legacy Museum and really read the literature, the stories from my great-grandparents came to mind and everything started fitting together like a puzzle…I can no longer say those were just stories. My grandparents are from Mississippi and Louisiana.
The lynching and the dirt in the jars have really stuck in my mind. The dirt reminded me of my grandfather, who was a reverend, so he had churches. And at each one of his churches he had cemeteries. Looking at the names on the posts in the memorial reminded me of him, too.
In the museum, where you sit at the telephone and there is the image of someone talking to you who was in jail, that was touching. Their families were stripped away from them just like that.
Diane: On Tuesday in Sacramento, when we took a group of seniors to the CA Senior Rally Day, I was able to show some of my pictures from Alabama to members of the Black community there. They were very interested, asking “Wow, how was it?” I said it was very emotional, and I talked with their group.
In the Legacy Museum, I couldn’t believe how many people are in jail now. It made me ask myself, “Is there any way that we can stop this kind of torture, stop putting people in jail without any kind of just process?” I learned the story of a man who was in prison for many years, and he was innocent, and finally they let him go.
The first picture I saw was of a man whose hands and feet were tied to a pole. That image makes me recall my father. He told me that in China somebody tied him in a similar way outdoors for three days, with no food. He was only thirteen. The trouble was that it was during World War II, and the Japanese had invaded China. My father stole a guava from a tree because he was hungry. They got him and tied him up in front of someone’s house, thumb to thumb. That picture looked exactly like what he told me.
I printed out a picture from the memorial, as the floor slopes down and the pillars hang over us from above. In that space, I felt the power of our ancestors. What we carry as we go forward is the responsibility. They are guiding us from above, as we walk. That picture gave me the feeling that we have responsibility after this trip.
Janice: Who are we in America? How are these atrocities of past (and present) lynchings connected to mass incarceration today? How can we be a more compassionate and just society if injustice to any human being or ethnic group, class, gender, sexual orientation, or immigration status is tolerated by a country that claims equality, democracy, and justice for all?
I am not attempting to compare the history of African Americans to the Holocaust or the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII, or the persecution of LBGTQ individuals. The mass lynchings of the past were only recently memorialized by the relentless, passionate, and brilliant work of Bryan Stevenson, who connects the horrific lynchings of thousands of African Americans from the end of the Civil War through WWII with the present-day mass incarceration of disproportionate numbers of African Americans in today’s prison industrial complex.
We are America, the great escape artist. The denial system of all denial systems.
We must be willing to face into the truth of history—genocide against Native Americans, incarceration of Japanese Americans, exploitation of Mexican and Latin immigrants, persecution or discrimination against the LBGTQ communities, anti-Semitism, prejudice and apathy towards those who are mentally or physically challenged, and the slavery and wholesale lynching of Black Americans, to name a few. Only by facing the truth of our atrocities can we begin the journey to reconciliation and healing.
The journey to Montgomery for the opening of the Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum was stunning, horrific, and inspirational. Who are we as a nation is the question that haunts me.
Raphael (original format preserved from e-mail): This trip meant a lot, and forever holds my soul. My adoptive mother would say time will change if we make a step forward… My mother’s mom and dad were born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1924. They lived in the back woods, in a one-room shack. They worked as housekeepers for the rich. Whoever they were gave the kids the option to make money in the cotton fields.
in short (my soul hurts)
but glad i made a step