The work we still need to do

In reading the book The End of Hunger, there was the good news combined with the challenge. The good news was that a massive amount of work has been accomplished in the past 25 years. Severe hunger is being reduced statistically. The bad news is that the last bit to go to eliminate the issue by 2030 is still costly. We can’t let up. We have to stay focused and work harder. It is easier to cut a problem in half than to eliminate it.

I thought of this as I sat in a historic black Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama this week. The subject wasn’t hunger. The subject was historic and systemic racism. The subject was justice.

A group from our area of Baldwin County, Alabama, had traveled by charter bus for the day to see the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. We then gathered at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd at the end of the day to talk through some of our thoughts and feelings.

It was my first visit to the Legacy Museum. (We had visited the National Memorial to Peace and Justice in July.) It is an overwhelming place. It was built on the site of a former slave warehouse in Montgomery. Thousands of slaves had been auctioned off in this area. In a several block radius were buildings and sites that housed other parts of the slave trade in the 19th Century. Banks, investment firms, law firms, auction houses, and more.

The museum is small and designed to be self guided. It is a walk through history to lead the observer to our current issues of mass incarceration and the inequity of justice dispensed to this day in places like Alabama. The history is important to understand the present.

You have to know the history.

Statistics and other artifacts of the deep South were there to overwhelm the observer with the deep problem that still plagues us. While we have come a long way, there is still a hard journey to take to end what has plagued us as a nation for centuries. We can get too congratulatory (“Well, we ended slavery, didn’t we?” or “Well, we elected a black president, didn’t we?”) and let off the gas that will take the vehicle of justice over the finish line.

I read laws that were passed. There were old slave ads posted. There were interactive videos from current situations in our prisons. It was overwhelming.

Some things I saw:

In 1834 Alabama passed a law making it illegal for a freed black to live in the state. If you were black in Alabama after that law was passed, you were considered property by law.

It is still in the state constitution of the state of Alabama that children of color and white children can’t get an education together. While we can say that is not practiced the burning question is this: Why is it still there? (Two statewide referendums to strike that part of the constitution down were defeated… in the 21st Century.)

In Alabama, more people are incarcerated per capita than any other state. Even the current justice department has the Alabama prison system on notice. Think about how bad your prison system has to be to get the attention of the current justice department of the U.S. government.

In my hometown of Leavenworth, Kansas, a place that stood as a beacon of freedom to slaves just over the river in Missouri, has three documented lynchings. In the early 1900s a veteran (Fred Alexander) was lynched with a mob of thousands watching.

In Duluth, MN, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie were lynched in 1920. Over 10,000 people were there to watch.

The past is horrific. We have to face it. Imagine Germany ignoring the Holocaust. By facing the Holocaust and keeping the memory in front of people (such as old concentration camps), there is a determination to guard against those atrocities. The common theme for those guarding that memory is this: NEVER AGAIN.

We still have the residual effects of deep racism baked into our justice system.

As I sat in the church listening to comments, one gracious lady said that it was hard to see what had gone on. It was hard remembering the racism she had faced in the Civil Rights era. But, she said, we’ve come so far. What grace she gave!

Then she said: “But we still have far to go.”

As with the issue of eliminating severe hunger in the world, the last bit of the journey is the hardest. It is one thing to cut an issue in half. It is another issue altogether to eliminate it.

The reason the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice were built is so we remember history correctly. We face the reality of what has happened. We can choose where we are going when we will fully recognize where we’ve been.

We can get a better way forward when we get the true history of where we’ve been.

Sculpture at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

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