Politics

Travels in the South | The Nation

Mrs. Johnson.”

Just “Mrs. Johnson.” It sounds anonymously inconsequential, but thanks to the contemplative, and harrowing, National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, she is being remembered. She is not alone. Some 4,000 others who were the victims of lynching, now have their names—and those of the counties from which they came—planted on steel monuments, in powerful fashion.

That memorial, and the nearby Legacy Museum, have welcomed some 400,000 visitors in the year since they were erected. Many other civil rights museums and sites have sprung up, creating a popular brand of tourism. It is as if the South is ready to take at least some responsibility for sins of its past. Not unlike the European nation that has been the most reflective about its darkest hour.

To each traveler, his or her own motivation. My decision to make a nine-day pilgrimage through Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Louisiana arose partly out of my recent theater reporting. Fairview, which won the Pulitzer Prize this year, ultimately dares its (largely white) audience to trade places with the African American cast on stage. A new production of Raisin in the Sun doesn’t change a word of Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic play, but the final scolding from mother to son is instead directed at the audience. Toni Stone is the true story of the first woman to play professional baseball in the Negro leagues. Staring us down, Toni asks, “you think you could tell the white people to care about us”?

So yes, I was feeling shamed and blamed. And when I saw 4,000 named on those steel blocks, I felt a need to be forgiven.

Throughout the journey, I was moved by Martin Luther King’s words, sickened by the statues of Jefferson Davis and Dr. J. Marion Sims, and inspired by the work of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative (the group behind the National Memorial). But what impacted me most were the women. There are, not surprisingly, many more male names than females on those steel monuments, but there are plenty of the latter: hanged for crimes like forgetting to address someone as “Mister” or “Ma’am,” or for trying to protect a child.

We all know about Rosa Parks, though it is still powerful to stand on the corner where that seemingly ordinary woman would not give up her seat. It is always good to be reminded of Fannie Lou Hamer, who mesmerized the 1964 Democratic convention with her angry demand that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party be seated—and heard. (“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”)




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