On Monday, Alabama is set to observe Confederate Memorial Day, commemorating the sons of the South killed in the Civil War. No surprise there. Alabama loves fighting with Mississippi for the title of “most racist state” (though they actually may be running neck and neck with “everything south of the Canadian border,” if we’re keeping it real).
I find this amusing, not just because of the abiding ridiculousness of the holiday itself—which for me and most black people is a dressed-up way of reveling in institutional racism and anti-blackness (contrary to claims of “love of heritage”)—but because I just so happen to be in Alabama today, Monday, for a press preview of a memorial and museum dedicated to those both forgotten and annihilated through acts of racial terror across the country, and I will touch this holiest site on … Confederate Memorial Day.
Ain’t God funny?
Also, welcome to America. And here in America, the God some trust is not on the dollar bill; it is the dollar bill. Here, as we all were whispered songs of “sweet lands of liberty,” black Americans perished in a nightmare of running blood and burning flesh and mass rape for pleasure and profit; that story all but erased from history and replaced with men playing war games, re-enacting so-called acts of valor for an indefensible premise.
A total mind fuck is what it is.
The national lynching memorial, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, will stand atop a hill, in remembrance of the more than 4,000 victims of racial terror on U.S. soil, which the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Institute has meticulously tracked for six years.
The accompanying Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, located in a former slave warehouse, will also tell the tale of our sojourn here: from enslavement to widespread public executions, to Jim Crow, to the continued violence against black bodies through mass incarceration and police violence.
The museum and memorial are but two drops in a bucket recognizing the true “legacy” of this nation; it’s a befitting tribute to those who weren’t able to throw up statues and establish holidays, their bodies sometimes snatched and ripped apart for keepsakes. It finally acknowledges, in a lasting way, what this country wrought upon its literal children, drafted into another war they never signed up for, but one in which they certainly perished, strange fruit hanging from poplar trees.
But only one group gets to mourn its loss and publicly lament lives lost fighting to maintain our perpetual suffering. At least until now.
Alabama, like a bevy of other Southern states, observes Confederate Memorial Day on the fourth Monday in April. Mississippi, Florida and Texas all have some sort of state holiday for Confederates, and in Texas, the day is called Confederate Heroes Day and is held on Jan. 19, perilously close to Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (Fun fact: if Confederate Heroes Day bumps heads with MLK Day, well, you get to celebrate a day off for whomever you like.)
The state of Georgia used to be part of this charade (I mean, why can’t Confederates celebrate Memorial Day like everybody else?) but removed the Confederate reference in 2015, and now the day is simply known as “State Holiday,” which is as absurd as it is banal.
Both Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee’s birthday were struck from the South Carolina state calendar after nine black parishioners were murdered at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., by a white supremacist who had a penchant for Confederate flags. It’s almost as if Confederate Memorial Day screams, “Beware: racial terror ahead.”
Except on this day, I carry my free black body into the South to honor, neither sacrifice nor suffering, but real black lives violently extinguished.
Which all brings us back to Bryan Stevenson and the memorial and museum opening in the city that birthed the civil rights movement. Stevenson, who is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Institute, astutely recognizes that symbolism and harsh truth are crucial to lasting change. He understands the propaganda of Confederate statues and holidays, and why they were even established in 20 states not in the Confederacy.
“I think the North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war,” said Stevenson in a February 2018 interview with Pacific Standard magazine. “The racial-equality principle that is in our Constitution was never extended to formerly enslaved people, and that is why I say slavery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved.”
Stevenson knows that slavery morphed several times in this nation, like a hydra that just won’t die. He laments that if we don’t tell the tale of what really happened here, those who will would tell a very different one from those victimized, and, eventually, the history of the Civil War becomes euphemisms like “states’ rights” and “heritage” instead of racial capitalism built on the backs of black bodies brutalized for sport.
Stevenson knows that bald-faced violence maintained the status quo.
“Black people ... would not have gone into the decrepit colored bathroom when the white bathroom was better,” he explained. “They wouldn’t drink out of the colored fountain—unless there was the threat of violence. So you cannot disconnect lynching and terror and violence from racial segregation and subordination.”
He recognizes that even with the gains of the civil rights movement, there was no real reckoning in the dark heart of American racism.
“The people holding up those signs that said ‘Segregation Forever,’ ‘Segregation or War,’ were not required to act differently, to think differently,” Stevenson said. “And that is the prelude to mass incarceration. That is why I don’t think you can understand the tremendous increase in the incarceration rates, the targeting of black people and menacing of communities of color and poor communities without understanding this history. We have to understand enslavement in a new way. I don’t think we’ve done a good job of educating people about what slavery did.”
And so, on Monday, in one part of the capital, at the actual Alabama Capitol, a group will be holding its annual commemoration of its dead, dressed in Confederate costumes and dreams of days when their ancestors partook in bare subjugation.
And in another part, I will be solemn and most likely weeping out of respect for those children, women and men who died horrible deaths just the same; those whose names no one dared to speak; those whose bodies were mutilated as much as for entertainment as to keep the others “in their place.”
In one part of Montgomery, there will be one narrative—that of an old way of being—and in another, a new song, what I like to call the truth.
Which shall set us free?