BY MARK McKENZIE
Wilshire Baptist Church, Dallas
“Daddy, what’s happening in this picture?”
The little girl, who must have been 5 or 6, was pointing to a photo on the wall of the new Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala. The black and white image showed a crowd of mourners carrying the coffin of a lynching victim. The girl’s father knelt down to her level, and while I didn’t hear his reply, it must have been something like, “The person in that coffin was killed because his skin looked like ours.”
If I had been there alone, viewing that photo and the others on display would have been devastating enough. But seeing it through the eyes of that little girl and her dad—who would have to explain the unexplainable—was almost too much to bear.
I had journeyed to Alabama with five other Wilshire members and about 10 times that many folks from Friendship-West Baptist Church, a predominantly African-American congregation we partner with on justice issues. As we visited sacred civil rights sites in Montgomery and Birmingham, I couldn’t help but wonder what my new Friendship-West friends were feeling and thinking.
What must they have felt at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, commonly known as the lynching memorial, where hundreds of coffin-sized monoliths hang from above, inscribed with the names of lynching victims?
What did they think in the shadow of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, where a bomb killed four little girls on a Sunday morning in 1963, or at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Montgomery parsonage, which was bombed not once but twice?
I couldn’t see these things the same way my African American companions saw them. But seeing alongside them—through them—helped me see better. And that, I think, was the point. When we see through others’ eyes in addition to our own, we see a fuller picture. We see what’s happening more clearly.
Sadly, the painful realities we confronted in Alabama aren’t confined to vintage photos in a museum. If you’re willing to look, you can see them play out in vivid color in the form of mass incarceration, police violence and systemic inequality.
The writer James Baldwin said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” We faced some tough stuff on this trip, and because we faced it with our friends from Friendship-West, we faced it a little better. With God’s help, and the help of those who help us see, maybe we’ll see real change in the days ahead.