Anthropologist Paul Connerton writes that a pilgrimage is “a long journey to a most sacred place, and it used to take many months, or even years.” My journey only took eight hours, but since I was driving to a sacred place, I considered it a pilgrimage all the same. The highway from here to Montgomery is a dull stretch of road, so I brought along a guide in audiobook form, Bryan Stevenson reading the audiobook version of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Stevenson was the force behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (commonly called the Lynching Memorial) and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala., which were the sacred places at the end of my pilgrimage. Yet I wasn’t just moving toward something, I was leaving something else behind.
I was drawn to Montgomery because Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative are committed to bold, uncomfortable truth telling. They want to bear public witness to the national shame of our abuse of people of color, from enslavement through lynching and Jim Crow, all the way to the current moment of racial profiling, police brutality, and mass incarceration. Stevenson makes it clear that we did not just happen into this moment. Rather, our whole history has brought us here. Only by telling the truth about that history, the deeply gut-wrenching, soul-searching, take-a-knee-for-the-anthem kind of truth, can we ever begin to find our way forward. Trouble is, most places won’t tell the truth so plainly. Certainly we’ve had trouble with it in Charleston.
Driving to Montgomery, it felt good to leave the Lowcountry behind for a few days. I left the Calhoun statue, still towering over our city. I left the harbor, where the defenders of slavery started a war that tore the country apart. I left the debates over plaques and apologies in City Hall while not far away historically black neighborhoods give way to pricey hotels and restaurants whose dish washers can’t afford to live nearby. I left the way we romanticize everything, including even the murders of our friends at Mother Emanuel AME Church; you can find their names if you look around the Gaillard grounds, but nothing will bear witness to the fact that white supremacy killed them. Honestly, it was cathartic to leave these things behind and go someplace where the truth would be told rough, not smoothed over, and the blood from the soil could speak for itself.
It is not possible to describe the experience of entering the memorial. You have to make the trip yourself to understand. What I can say is that walking among thousands of names of people of color who were publicly tortured and killed in front of crowds of white onlookers was a visceral experience. Visitors put their hands on the walls and sculptures. People read the stories of those who were killed. Some quietly wept at the volume of names and the weight of their suffering. I stood by a case filled with soil collected from two dozen lynching sites. And it was quiet. People wandered through the memorial, taking in things that had never been told to them quite so truthfully.
The Legacy Museum was equally powerful. Stevenson designed it to accompany the memorial and had it funded privately so he could again offer the unvarnished truth without needing to appease public officials or corporate donors. The museum was housed in a building that once held enslaved people of color who had been separated from their families and sold. I entered and was greeted with holographic images of people behind bars; each one told his or her story. Before the end of the exhibit, I sat before similar images, only this time they shared the voices of the incarcerated. From start to finish, it was clear how our culture and our law has always treated black people differently. It was refreshing to see and hear all the dots being connected with no obfuscation, but it was also horrifying. I have never been angrier walking out of a museum.
What I learned this summer is what it feels like to be in a place that tells the truth boldly and uncomfortably and then return home to a place that prizes politeness and struggles to say anything clearly at all. One showed me exactly how we got here; the other showed me why it’s so hard to get anywhere else.
Jeremy Rutledge is Circular Church’s senior minister and the co-president of Charleston Area Justice Ministry.