While walking through the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, and then the National Memorial for Peace and Justice last month in Montgomery, Alabama, I couldn’t help but imagine how a deep dive here by more people could finally serve as a lasting solution to the nation’s problem of violent crime.
The sites are operated by the Equal Justice Initiative, founded in 1989 by Bryan Stevenson. The organization combats racial injustice, illegal convictions, unfair sentencing, the death penalty and excessive punishment while helping ex-offenders reenter society.
I was among the hundreds of people attending the international conference of the National Association for Multicultural Education last month touring the Equal Justice Initiative sites. Stevenson, author of the bestseller “Just Mercy,” also spoke to a packed ballroom of pre-kindergarten through college educators at the conference.
Rather than punishment, Stevenson said, society needs to show compassion, concern and love to offenders. It’s not liberal nonsense.
Instead of overloading jails and prisons with young men and women, communities like Kansas City should invest money to bus them to Montgomery for an intensive, supervised study of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
It’s a different system of education and rehabilitation that would expose young people to the nation’s hateful history of violence, and teach them how to be part of the solution to it rather than contribute to the ongoing problem. As Kansas City’s homicide count rises this year to a shameful record, people would learn to value life at the Equal Justice Initiative sites rather than to take it.
“Proximity is the key to our capacity to make a difference,” Stevenson said. If people want justice, he said, they must get uncomfortably close to injustice.
That is the exact opposite of conservative groups nationwide pushing book bans, attacking educators teaching diversity, equity and inclusion, and insisting we shouldn’t be “woke” to ongoing injustices. Their idea is that students get only a pretty picture of America — minus its brutal history of slavery, Jim Crow, white supremacy, racism, discrimination and ever-present implicit bias.
In the Legacy Museum, young people will come face-to-face with the griping reality of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The subdued lighting, the video and sound of waves crashing ashore and sculptures of dozens of Black bodies emerging from the sand immediately grab visitors’ attention.
They will see videos recounting the rushing swarm of ships carrying kidnapped Africans crossing the Atlantic Ocean in bondage to be delivered each year to different American states. Other exhibits and interactive stations help inform visitors of the slavery’s enormous reach into this country’s social, political and economic development. The labor from the human cargo — though unjust — enriched white Europeans, laying the foundation for today’s U.S. superpower status with no reparations at all for Black Americans.
Even after the Civil War, Reconstruction and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, Jim Crow, segregation and white supremacy prevailed, resulting in other forms of racial oppression, including the growth of the U.S. prison-industrial complex, locking almost 2 million people behind bars — the most in the world.
Stevenson told educators that 1 in 3 Black male babies and 1 in 6 Latino babies can expect to go to prison in the United States. In some ZIP codes, 70% to 80% of children can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, he said. That chilling reality permeated the museum and national memorial. But taught the right way, it could get offenders to direct their lives onto a better path.
The nation just needs some angel investors to help make the road trip to Montgomery for offenders and their transformation possible.
At the 6-acre National Memorial for Peace and Justice, visitors are solemnly exposed to the decadeslong domestic terrorism of more than 4,000 recorded lynchings in America between 1877 and 1950. They are noted on more than 800 coffin-like hanging steel rectangles, each red with rust and deeply engraved with the names of U.S. counties, where documented lynchings occurred. Counties in Missouri are included.
In the Legacy Museum is a large wall of shelves filled with dozens of gallon-size glass jars containing soil samples with the DNA of the lynching victims pulled from the roots of some of the trees where Black people were hanged.
Seeing this history of suffering that African Americans endured, and the senseless reasons for their deaths, should make offenders question why they would want to feed into such continuing violence and to turn instead to value the lives of others and their own like never before.
Stevenson told educators that our society must never run from the truth about the past. People can’t get the remedy right if they hide from the truth. Educators have a special responsibility to teach everyone to work for peace and justice to repair the poverty and injustice in America.
Fear also should have no place in such truth-seeking and truth-telling. Young people quickly see through that. Confronting fear and the truth remain our constant challenges.
Lewis W. Diuguid is a former longtime journalist for The Kansas City Star. He serves as chair of the political action committee of the National Association for Multicultural Education.