I am a sophomore at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, which is the first interracial and coeducational institution in the south, and also the alma mater of Dr. Carter G. Woodson. I major in African and African American Studies and Spanish. This weekend I had an opportunity to travel with the department to Montgomery, Alabama. Our journey to Montgomery was two-fold. Besides being a key city in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, Montgomery is also home to the relatively new Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration. The visit to this museum made me realize that terrorism is a major problem in the United States. The terrorism I am referring to is probably different than what you think, and is not always referred to as such.
We started out at the lynching memorial that is a few blocks away from the museum. The memorial honors African Americans whose lives were taken by lynching. There were hanging stones that had the names engraved on it from all the known lynchings in every county in every southern state. Where there were no names known, “unknown” was listed in place of a name. What was so overwhelming about this experience was that while there were so many who were lynched, very few names were listed. The unknowns outnumbered the known.
Lynching occurred in the United States for many years and many of the occurrences went unrecorded. There were so many of the recorded occurrences depicted in this memorial, but knowing that there were many more that could possibly be related to me or to people I know was disturbing. Another unsettling aspect of the experience seeing the reasons why people were lynched listed.
Many of the reasons were not only unproven accusations, but were also ridiculous. To think that these reasons resulted in the death and public humiliation of scores of human beings is incomprehensible. Nobody was safe from lynching, no matter how they decided to conduct their lives because at any moment an unfounded accusation from a random white person could result in death for an innocent person. This is terrorism by definition.
After the memorial we went inside the museum. It was really only a single room but there was so much material to take in. We were there for about two hours. This experience was very emotionally draining for me. The museum started out depicting slavery, and then they had a timeline that led us from slavery to today. The part about slavery did not surprise me because I have learned a great deal about the institution and its history.
The most eye opening and disturbing part of this experience was the history that is still occurring today. Many people in this country believe that we are past racism. Their thinking is because slavery doesn’t exist anymore and there are no laws that limit a person’s rights because of their race that racism does not exist in the law.
While it is true, that the days of fearing of being captured, sold, or lynched are over, it doesn’t mean that the terror that results from racism doesn’t still exist. The Legacy Museum paints a clear picture and highlights that terrorism that the black community continues to face. Terror through racism has not gone away, it has just evolved.
There were stories of the experiences of black people in prison, and the stories of those killed as well. Many of us are aware of the overwhelming statistics of black incarceration. The museum looks behind these statistics and tells some of the personal stories of these forgotten people – Blacks convicted and incarcerated for crimes they did not commit, children placed in adult prisons, children given life without parole, or people facing near death experiences in prison while serving significant time for very insignificant crimes.
It’s easy to see that our nation still has blood on its hands. A narrative was created when the thirteenth amendment was passed that black people were “criminals”. This was done in part to legally uphold the practices of slavery in another format. This narrative is still going strong today and is the main thrust for the disproportionate levels of blacks who are incarcerated.
When we are asked to imagine a criminal we often see a young black man. When we see that young black man we often become scared, or even fear for our lives. Black men are still unjustly killed at the hands of the police and are still being incarcerated at alarming rates, many serving an unfair amount of time without any hopes of getting out.
This new form of terrorism for the black community spreads fear. Fear of you, your son, your nephew, or your cousin being killed by the police because he looked suspicious. The new terrorism includes being imprisoned for a crime you did not commit and having years of your life taken from you that you cannot get back.
It was disturbing to see for myself and realize that for many in our communities, we are not as removed from slavery and lynching as we would like to think. The system and the killing has just evolved. It is a hard pill to swallow that we live our lives daily consuming the misconception that we have progressed so much as a nation, yet many of our brothers and sisters are still being oppressed in ways we cannot even imagine.
In light of this, the black community has every right to be in fear of this new kind of terrorism. So, the next time you walk down the street and see a young black man with a hoodie on, ask yourself: Which one of us should really be fearing for their life?