It was the epicenter of the slave trade, where we began our journey, standing together on the site of a slave warehouse in Montgomery. The voices of enslaved people filled the room: A mother, pleading for news of her children. A little boy, trying to comfort his sister. A man, speaking of brutal torture. Images of a father, falling to his knees, as his daughter is ripped away by a bearded white man, to be brought up for auction; this twelve year old girl poked and prodded by strangers, who decide whether or not to purchase her. The instructions they receive before mounting the auction block. “Sell yourselves, talk about how strong you are, how hard working you are, or you will be beaten within an inch of your lives.” Women violated, abused, assaulted. All legal, perpetrated by white people calling themselves Christian.
We moved forward in the journey, through emancipation, and instead of seeing images of freedom, we encountered brutal torture and an intentional campaign of terror. Shortly after the Civil War, federal troops were pulled out of the South. Immediately upon their departure, lynching became a way to terrorize people of color back into servitude. These lynchings were public, attended by thousands of spectators. Some were even advertised in the newspaper beforehand. Photos of the crowds abound – white people enjoying cotton candy and popcorn in a carnival atmosphere, while a human being is tortured, burned alive, dismembered. Fingers of victims were handed out to onlookers, so they could keep them as souvenirs.
From 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Many people who perpetrated and participated in lynchings are still alive. The spectators, those who came to eat popcorn and watch murder, are still alive. And there are still fingers and fingernails and other gruesome souvenirs stored away in desk drawers, rotting with the putrid stench of hatred.
In one of the photos, a young white boy watches as a black man is murdered. That young white boy looks a lot like my oldest son. That young white boy is likely still alive. And for a child to see that kind of torture, that kind of brutality, he had to internalize a violent racism. He had to believe that people of color are evil, that they are subhuman, that they deserve to be tortured and killed. And he passed that on to his children, and their children, who make decisions in our country to this day.
For those of us who are white, this kind of brutality lives in our ancestry, and because of that, there is a racism that still lives in us, a racism that thrives in our country. We cannot pretend that the Civil Rights movement solved this problem. Because deep in the foundations of our country, in the roots of our institutions, and even in our own souls, the poison of racism still exists.
As we moved on to the Civil Right movement, traveling to Selma and then on to Birmingham, the images of lynchings were never far from my mind. And I knew, without a doubt, that those images were seared in the memories of those who marched. Over and over again, when a person of color started advocating for her rights, she would be lynched. Over and over again, when a person of color started demanding justice, he would be lynched. And so, when they began that march on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, when they faced the dogs and the fire hoses, they also faced the reality of the noose. They also knew that they could be publically tortured and murdered once they returned home. That kind of courage stops me in my tracks. Lynching was an intentional method of terrorizing people of color, so that they would stay enslaved. The brutality and torture was meant to keep black people from demanding their rights. By perpetrating horrific violence, white people sought to keep black people submissive and scared. But the Civil Right movement still happened, the marches still happened, the boycotts still happened, the children’s campaign still happened. I have no idea how people could find the courage to face not only the snarling dogs, not only the fire hoses, not only the prisons, but also the noose and the fires and the bombings and the guns, for the sake of freedom.
We sat in the church in Birmingham, where four young black girls were killed, when a white supremacist set off a bomb. He planted it in the basement, where the children had Sunday school, and set if off on a Sunday morning. Their four little bodies were found piled on top of one another. In that same sanctuary, 400 children had gathered, to march for their rights, months earlier. They were brutalized by attack dogs, sharp teeth ripping into young flesh. They were brutalized by fire hoses, with force strong enough to rip bark off of trees. They were brutalized by the police officers, struck by their batons. And then, the very next day, 1000 children showed up to march again. To face the dogs and the hoses and the batons, to march for freedom.
It was 1963 when the bomb exploded and killed those little girls. It was just one of fifty bombings that were perpetrated against black people in the city of Birmingham. Black churches and black homes faced repeated bombings. Any black person trying to move into a white neighborhood faced a firebomb. Any black person working for civil rights faced a firebomb. Any black church working on desegregation faced a firebomb. The rotten stench of violence, of dynamite exploding, and stealing human lives, still lives on in our country.
Our journey led us forward, to the criminal justice system today, where people of color are still disproportionately imprisoned, where brutality against black and brown bodies is still perpetrated. It led us forward to today, where police officers still kill unarmed people of color. It led us forward to today, where segregation in our housing and in our school systems continues to impoverish communities of color. It led us forward to today, where wealth continues to collect among white people, as people of color endure the economic legacy of slavery, redlining, segregation, bombings, and brutalization. This journey was not about the past. It was about the present.
Brian Stevenson writes that slavery never ended. It just evolved. Our trip from Montgomery to Selma to Birmingham showed the intentional and systematic method of maintaining white supremacy in our country. First through hundreds of years of slavery, and then a hundred years of torture and lynchings and Jim Crow laws, and today, through the practices of our criminal justice system and the legacy of racism in all our institutions. We need to tell the truth. We cannot sanitize this story. When we do, we allow something foul to survive.
It survives today. It survives in me. It survives in our churches. It survives in our criminal justice system. It survives in our schools. And in order to eradicate the poison of racism, we need to tell the truth.
For those of us who are white, the journey begins inside of us. We first need to deal with our own legacy of racism, our own benefits from white privilege, our own tendency to ignore injustice. We need to do some hard work, listening and learning and following the lead of people of color. We must tell the truth, and we must recognize and eradicate our own internal bias.
Then, we must spend time learning about the courage of those who fought. When we recognize the risks that people of color took in their fight for freedom, then maybe we can allow ourselves to take risks, as well. We must give up the notion that we should always be comfortable. Instead, we must accept the discomfort of facing that which is foul, and working to eradicate the stench.
Finally, we get to work. We look at our institutions, and we unmask racism. We actively work with people of color to protest injustice. We give money to organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center or to the Racial Justice Ministries of the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. We host racial justice trainings, and we insist on accountability from our leaders. We have uncomfortable conversations, and we refuse to give up.
It is far past time to take action. It is far past time to tell the truth. For only then can we get rid of this poison, this poison inflicted by white Christians, like me.
The Rev. Kari Nicewander is Senior Pastor of the Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford, CT
Reverend Kari Nicewander, a native of Michigan, earned a B.A. from the University of Michigan and her Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School. Her diverse ministry experience in United Church of Christ congregations includes Associate Pastor ...