Members of the New Baptist Covenant ministry team visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., on Juneteenth this year. The memorial was designed as a journey from slavery, to the terror of lynching and race-based horror, through the hard fought battles for civil rights and ultimately on to modern America’s struggle with mass incarceration. Four of us made the trek to the six-acre elevated sight with views of the Alabama Capitol and downtown Montgomery. Two in our team are white and born and raised in the South. Two in the team are black and born and raised in the North or in the West.
Solemnly we made our way up the pathway into a structure made of more than 800 six-foot steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a lynching of a black person took place as a tool of paralyzing fear and terror. The names of lynching victims and the dates when these lynching occurred are engraved on each monument. Almost 5,000 names are etched there.
As one enters the structure, the monuments are at first at eye level. But slowly the monuments begin to rise overhead as one peruses each ascending corridor. Halfway through the journey, I found myself looking straight up at the bases of the monuments, hanging there in silent testimony to the brutality that African Americans suffered in this country. I found myself humming the song “Strange Fruit,” performed most notably by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone and written by Abel Meeropol. Its powerful lyrics best expressed what I was feeling and thinking:
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
After our visit, Hannah McMahan King, NBC’s Co-Executive Director, and I reflected on our experiences there. Sitting in the blazing heat of the Alabama summer sun, we sat in front of the memorial and shared our immediate impressions with our Facebook Live constituents. You may see and hear us reflect on our visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice by viewing the video below.