Bearing Witness

What can an ally do?

I’m the poster child of privilege. That much should be clear to anyone who meets me. Straight white guy from the suburbs. College educated in middle America, middle-aged living a middle-class life. Married to my college girlfriend for 29 years, 2.0 kids and a cocker spaniel in a 1960s split level.

My notion of peace has always been communal. As Dr. King reminded us, “None of us is free until all of us are free.” As a result, a part of A Peace of My Mind’s mission has always been to elevate and amplify other voices and call attention to perspectives that may not be heard as loudly as they should be in our world today.

The sins of our history are many and they are great. That statement doesn’t represent a hatred of our nation (as some tend to accuse) but rather a recognition that we can do better and a belief that we can only move forward with an honest reckoning of our past. As Angela Bates told me in Nicodemus, Kansas, “We can’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been.”

While we can’t change the past, neither can we sweep it under the carpet. Bearing witness can be a powerful and necessary part of the process of creating our more perfect union. In February, on the way to Mississippi State, I was able to work some time into the schedule to visit several sites in the South in an effort to bear witness to the sins of slavery, Jim Crow laws and racist discrimination…sins that continue to haunt us today in the criminal justice system, in achievement gaps, in unconscious bias, in the renewed rise of white supremacist groups and ideologies.

And so we visited the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, the site where Rosa Parks boarded her bus, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Selma Interpretive Center, the march route from Selma to Montgomery and —perhaps most powerfully—the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

The memorial was imagined and created with the leadership of the Equal Justice Initiative and offers an unflinching and somber monument to remember more than 4,400 African Americans who were killed through lynching and racially motivated violence.

The memorial sits on a grassy hill and you are led to it on a walkway with signage that gives the site context. The space feels sacred. You enter at ground level, but then slowly descend a ramp to stand below a vast collection of metal rectangles that are suspended above you. Each of the monuments represents a county that was the site of at least one lynching. The county’s name is engraved on the bottom of the metal monument and the names of the victims from that county are engraved on the sides.

Along the walls are accounts of individuals who were lynched. The who, what, where, when and why stated simply without flinching. Here are some of the passages:

-A black man was lynched in Millersburg, Ohio, in 1892 for “standing around” in a white neighborhood.

-Nathan Bird was lynched near Luling, Texas, in 1920, for refusing to turn his teenaged son over to a mob; his son, accused of fighting with a white boy, was also lynched.

-Bird Cooper was lynched in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, in 1908 after he was acquitted of murder charges.

– Fred Rochelle, 16, was burned alive in a public spectacle lynching before thousands in Polk County, Florida, in 1901.

-Lacy Mitchell was lynched in Thomasville, Georgia, in 1930 for testifying against a white man accused of raping a black woman.

– William Brooks was lynched in 1894 in Palestine, Arkansas, after he asked his white employer for permission to marry the man’s daughter.

– In 1934, after being accused of “associating with a white woman” in Newton, Texas, John Griggs was hanged and shot seventeen times and his body was dragged behind a car through the town for hours.

– General Lee, a black man, was lynched by a white mob in 1904 for merely knocking on the door of a white woman’s house in Reevesville, South Carolina.

It was heartbreaking. Raw. Damning. Tragic. Unforgivable. Humbling. Grievous. Convicting.

And it was important to be there. Not to change the history, of course, but simply to acknowledge it. Bear witness to it. Feel it. Learn from it.

One of the most powerful things we can say to one another is, “I see you, I hear you, and you matter.” When we fail to acknowledge historical wounds, we leave them to fester. The first step in healing is to bring the wounds into the daylight to acknowledge them, and it’s a thing we have failed to do for too long around racial issues in America. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice moves into that space. It delivers an honest and transformative reckoning with our troubled history.

The experience of the memorial stayed with me through the week as I made my way through Selma and on to Mississippi State to work with students in the Holmes Cultural Diversity Center.

The road home offered a bit of hope as I stopped for a night in Clarksdale, Mississippi to listen to some Delta Blues. I visited my favorite juke joint, Red’s, to hear Terry “Big T” Williams play with his band. Red’s is a dive. They haven’t so much as dusted for a few decades and the ceiling is held up with duct tape and black plastic bags.

The crowd that night was the usual mix of locals and tourists from around the world. There was an African American gentleman at the door with a silk suit and a bold hat. I wish I’d gotten his name. As the energy of the band filled the room, he invited the women in the joint to dance. Black, white, young, old, the good dancers and the bad ones. It didn’t matter. He wanted to dance and there was an air of sheer joy for those who danced with him and for the rest of us who simply looked on.

100 years ago, that couldn’t have happened. 50 years ago that couldn’t have happened. Hell, there’s places where it couldn’t happen today, but it happened in Clarksdale, Mississippi and it gave me hope.

We’ve got work to do. We are making progress, for sure, even though it’s not fast enough for my taste. But just in the span of that week, I was able to bear witness to an arc in the moral universe…and it was bending toward justice.

2 thoughts on “Bearing Witness

  1. How prescient this was of the awareness the murder of George Floyd would bring to the United States.

  2. Thank you John for taking us along on your journey! Your beautiful writing put me in Mississippi with you. So often as a white person it is easy to disassociate with our history of hate and prejudice. You so eloquently explained why it is our responsibility to remember, honor and commit to never again. I look forward to traveling with you in the future.

Leave a Reply