I recently traveled with my wife Maya to different sites across the American South to encounter and reflect on a national past that is very much part of our present — America’s history of slavery, racism, and the brave acts and works of resistance that have always accompanied it. We contemplated this history in the context of ongoing struggles for racial justice and democracy and our roles as citizens – myself, a South Asian-American physician, and my wife, a white Jewish American educator. The trip took us from near New Orleans to three settings across Alabama - Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham - before ending in Atlanta at the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Need Not be Lived Again
These words from Maya Angelou’s poem On the Pulse of Morning are printed on the walls of both the old and new homes of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. The remarkable museum, on the site of a former slave warehouse, led us on a path beginning with the transatlantic slave trade and then traced racial oppression in its multiple forms - among them lynchings and Jim Crow, segregation, and a structurally biased criminal legal system. For a country in need of reparative labor and at a time when the telling and teaching of this history has come under fierce attack, the museum provoked us to consider the meaning of Angelou’s words.
Between Bars and Fields
The Whitney Plantation, about an hour west of New Orleans near the Mississippi River, is one of the only plantations that tells the story of slavery from the vantages and experiences of enslaved people. On grounds is an installation of jail-like human cages similar to the ones that held Black people prior to being sold in slave markets, torn from social relations at the behest of White plantation owners. From behind the metal bars, we looked out to the home of the plantation owner. The plantation is featured in Clint Smith’s recent book How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America.
Sloss Furnaces and Convict Leasing
The old Sloss furnaces silhouette the sky of the eastern part of Birmingham, Alabama. These furnaces, part of a large iron manufacturing complex, were critical to making Birmingham (like the British city it was named after) a critical industrial hub in the post-Civil War era. The city's many new factories - owned by White families with roots in the confederate South - exploited recently emancipated Black labor through a combination of the “convict-leasing” system as well as low-wage employment for those seeking to escape sharecropping. Under this “convict-leasing” system, which remained legal between 1875 and 1928 in Alabama, companies and individuals could pay fees to local governments in exchange for the labor of prisoners - most of whom were Black people convicted for minor offenses.
Hands Up and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice
This sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas stands on the slope of a hill at the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The depictions of Black people with their hands up raises contemporary issues of police brutality and a racially biased criminal legal system. Just atop the hill stands more than 800, six-foot tall rusted steel mini-monuments, each representing an American county where racial terror lynchings took place during the era of Jim Crow. The space invites visitors to contemplate the various forms and manifesations of subjugation and racial terror that Black Americans have faced and is inspired by memorial efforts in Europe after the Holocaust and in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.
Bloody Sunday and a Bridge to Freedom
Edmund Pettus Bridge was the site of “Bloody Sunday”, a brutal beating of civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. The Selma marchers, including then 25-year old activist John Lewis, planned to take their demands for voting rights directly to Governor George Wallace at the Alabama state capitol some fifty miles away. As they crossed over the bridge, the marchers were met with white state troopers with billy clubs and tear gas. Footage from the scene interrupted national broadcasts that night and shocked the country; these events propelled momentum for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Marchers would return to the site on two more occasions in subsequent weeks, the last one (March 21-25) leading all the way to the state capitol. The events of the Selma movement are described in the documentary Eyes on the Prize in the sixth and final episode and dramatized in the 2014 movie Selma. The bridge remains named after a former Confederate general and leader in the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.
Footsteps at a Crossroads
The footsteps in front of the Alabama capitol - of different ages and genders - commemorate the arrival of the Selma to Montgomery marchers on March 25, 1965. The marchers were ending their march at a physical crossroads of American history. Positioned on the Alabama River and on rail lines built with enslaved labor, Montgomery became a major site in the domestic slave trade - with a slave market down the street from the capitol. A little more than 100 years earlier, the building in front of the marchers served as the first (and temporary) capitol of the Confederacy fighting to preserve slavery. A decade earlier in 1955 and just down the street, Rosa Parks got on the bus and refused to give up her seat to white passengers - an action that launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott and further inspired the civil rights movement.
“I ain’t afraid of your jail”
In May 1963, thousands of Black children in Birmingham, Alabama, walked out of school to protest segregation. Their peaceful march was countered with attack dogs, water hoses, and almost 1000 arrests by Birmingham police. James Drake’s 1992 sculpture in Kelly Ingram Park - a central site of these protests - renders two children over the words, “I ain’t afraid of your jail.” Their campaign was part of a broader effort focused on ending segregation in Birmingham and across the south. Victories in these efforts were met with violence, including the bombing by white supremacists of the 16th St. Baptist Church located across the street from Kelly Ingram Park on September 15, 1963. The explosion killed four young black girls - Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carole Denise McNair.
Bull Connor’s Dogs in Kelly Ingram Park
This 1991 scrap iron sculpture by James Drake, also in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, depicts the police dogs unleashed on civil rights marchers and demonstrators by Commissioner of Public Safety T. Eugene “Bull” Connor in the spring of 1963. Images of the police dogs and water hoses used on young Black people by Connor’s police force were carried on national television. These events occurred as America projected values of freedom and liberty internationally amidst the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The country’s attention on the events transpiring in Birmingham and ongoing pressure from the civil rights movement created the momentum for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination in public accomodations and schools. The events of the Birmingham Campaign are featured in episode four of Eyes on the Prize.
“Are You Listening?”
This image is part of a mural by artist Milton Madison (@madcre8tiv) painted on a building in Montgomery in the wake of civil unrest sparked by police brutality against Black Americans. Weaved into the artwork are the names of local citizens whose lives have been wrongfully lost to police violence. Painted along the Selma to Montgomery trail, the mural reminds us of the pain and anger of this loss while providing hope for contemporary non-violent movements that are pushing for accountability and justice.
Like a Mighty Stream
Just down the street from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthplace and the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he served as pastor, the King Center stands as a tribute to his principles and strategies of non-violence and justice. This reflecting pool encompasses the crypts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife and the founder of The King Center, Mrs. Coretta Scott King. Ending our trip at this pool, we contemplated the arc and ancestors of the civil rights movement, and the deep inheritance they have left us all.
More Beautiful and More Terrible
In a letter to teachers, James Baldwin once described America's history as “longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” As I reflect on our trip, these words have never felt so true. Standing in the spaces containing the breadth of these stories provoked powerful feelings for us - of anguish and anger, revelation and motivation. We also felt an intense gratitude to those who have heeded Angelou’s words and done the painstaking work of documenting our past so that we might learn from it. These spaces and stories will stay with us, summoning us to act upon this inheritance and carry forward the work of democracy, equity, and justice.
Credit: To Maya Cohen for contributing to the concluding paragraph, offering feedback on the photo essay, and for co-dreaming and doing this trip together.
Victor Roy [2009, 2012] is a doctor and sociologist whose work investigates the political economy of health inequity and social strategies that support accompaniment and care for structurally marginalised patients and communities.