What is it like to be handed a small garden trowel and to dig into a jar of earth and carefully transfer some of that earth to another jar, labeled with a name and a date John Henry James, July 12, 1898, lynched outside Charlottesville? The earth is from the place along the railroad tracks where James was pulled from a train, strung up and shot. There was no justice for this man, only mob violence and the mob was never charged. The jar now joins other jars of earth, jars that stretch to the ceiling, each from another lynching. We are in Montgomery, Alabama at Equal Justice Initiative. There are over a hundred pilgrims from Charlottesville who have accompanied the earth, carrying all of the pain and outrage of a day 120 days ago. This is not just sobering, it is overwhelming. We walk through the Legacy Museum where no pictures are allowed. The images and the text on the walls scream at us, the stories of thousands of lynchings, of brutality beyond imagination, of children ripped from their parents arms never to be seen again. All of this is near Commerce Street. Hundreds of thousands of slaves were offloaded at the wharf at the end of the street, shimmering in the heat. Commerce Street was lined with the offices of prosperous slave traders, of investors and investment houses like Lehman Brothers. The holograms speak to us. “Have you seen my children?” We move on to a grassy hillside of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice where there are dark metal sculptures, all uniform, like industrial sarcophagi, some standing , some hanging as though there has been a mass lynching here. Each is engraved with a county and state and the names of men, women and children brutally murdered there, hung, shot, burned to death. Some of the counties are places in my district where I travel every week. Fluvanna County. Franklin county. There is a young woman with me from Charlottesville who sees the name of a great, great uncle and his infant child. The child’s name was Julia. Julia was shot in her mother’s arms as they fled a burning house.
There is a smooth waterfall running over stone behind this memorial and for me it is all of the tears flowing from this dark history. Once you see this, you can no longer close your eyes. It is as though your eyelids have been pinned back. So who is in this group from Charlottesville? Religious leaders, local officials, academics, activists both young and old--including the organizers of the event Jalane Schimdt and Andrea Douglas, Mayor Nikuyah Walker and Heather Heyer’s mother. They now share the bond of witnessing this. All want to heal the wounds. All want to take a next step, carry this history into the high school textbooks, find ways to cure institutional racism, understand the fact that filling prisons with black children is not so far from driving the shackled slaves down Commerce Street. All are apprehensive about the upcoming anniversary of August 12th. The white supremacists have inherited the mantel of hatred from the lynch mobs, the anonymous killers whose crimes have been buried so long in the earth that fills the jars.
Handing the trowel to the next in line is like communion, a sacred rite, an act of remembering, that every American should experience so that we no longer see in black and white.