In November 2019 I traveled with over one hundred members of my Jewish congregation to Montgomery, Alabama, on a pilgrimage to two remarkable institutions created by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a justice organization created by Bryan Stevenson over thirty years ago. (You might be familiar with Mr. Stevenson as the attorney who argued history-making juvenile justice cases before the US Supreme Court, including Miller vs. Alabama, which held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional).
We went on this journey together because we understand that as Jews, as Americans, and as human beings, we must acknowledge and respond to a part of our history that has for too long been more hidden than visible in our public discourse.
The first stop on this journey was to the Legacy Museum, which is subtitled “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.” This museum is built on the site of a former slave warehouse and gives visitors the opportunity to learn about and experience the impact and legacy of our country’s history of racial inequality and the relationship of this history to present-day issues, and specifically, mass incarceration. The museum uses first-person narratives and original research to create exhibits that use video, audio, art
and text to allow visitors to begin to understand, with their minds and heart, the terrible legacy of enslavement, racial terror and racial segregation.
As I first walked down the ramp into the museum, my attention was caught by the projected image of two small children, a boy of about seven and his little sister. The boy was calling out for his mother, and the story—while only narrated by this one word, “mama”—was heart-breakingly clear: two children separated forever from their mother, and sent alone into a life of ongoing trauma and violence. For this family, this was a pivotal moment in what followed: decades and generations of trauma, and I as a museum visitor and a human being, needed to bear witness.
A 15-minute walk from the museum is a different, but equally powerful new institution: The National Peace and Justice Memorial, also known as the “Lynching Memorial.” This memorial grew out of EJI’s work to document the racial terror of the post-Civil War period (up until the civil rights movement) that included thousands of public executions of Black men and women. EJI wanted to document these murders and also the terror and impact this violence had on entire communities. The memorial structure that forms the center of the site is constructed of over 800 steel rectangular monuments, each with the names of lynching victims from a
specific county. In another part of the park, there are identical monuments—the memorial has invited every county to claim these as acknowledgment of the lives that were taken in their community, with the intention that “over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.”
So why am I, the Program Director of Re:Store Justice writing about this visit? First, because transformative and restorative justice require that: accountability for harm and for creating healing and safety in our communities is not only the responsibility of individuals. Our government and systems must also be accountable for past harms and current actions that create the conditions of inequality that can lead to violence, despair and trauma. Second, as someone whom society has labeled a victim/survivor because I lost a loved one to homicide, I also need to think about my own accountability and amends for living in a society that privileges me as a white woman.
One of the most powerful things I have learned through my work with survivors and responsible parties is that none of us should be defined by the worst thing we have done or what has happened to us. As Walt Whitman once wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Each person is complex and our lives contain many contradictions. AND, it is also true that
we cannot heal if we don’t acknowledge the harm we have caused to others, intentional or not. And that is a lesson I first learned from the men and women I have sat in circle with inside California’s prisons.
With hope, because hopelessness is the enemy of justice
With courage, because peace requires bravery
With persistence, because justice is a constant struggle
With faith, because we shall overcome
- National Peace and Justice Memorial,
EJI, Montgomery, Alabama