12 September 2021
Visit to the Equal Justice Initiative Museum, From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.
Near the end of the EJI’s newly expanded museum, there is a wall of slightly larger than life-size mugshots of folks arrested alongside Mrs. Rosa Parks in just another local act of civil disobedience. I’ve rarely seen a more earnest collection of everyday people, not unlike the folks around me as I get to know Montgomery today.
Men in suits, ladies sporting pretty hats in their Sunday best.
Farmers in overalls and working women in neat dresses.
Learned-looking men with glasses, and fancy tiepins.
Young men in sleek fedoras and two or three older men in derbies.
Another man wears a skullcap.
Meaningful women and men of age, of reconstruction age, whom we imagine had by then seen every intimate and public side of Jim and Jane Crows’ wickedness.
They were representin’.
The only thing they seem to have in common is their determination.
I found myself face-to-face and fixated with
Miss Lillie Bell Robinson.
With her arms,
With her head,
With her expression, tired, but
Also, a particular squint in her eye – or perhaps a gleam – that betrays her obvious fatigue,
As if saying: “No ways tired.”
I moan in tune, and
This somehow keeps my knees from buckling under the weight of it all, since
The preceding exhibits have already taken us along a long timeline where
Every glimpse of justice gets trampled upon –
Again, and again.
I sigh and see why they are tired.
On that day, did Miss Lillie know that much more violence, much more real intensified violence was yet to come?
This was the mid-50’s, and
Could Miss Lillie have imagined that:
Just 5-6 years later,
Freedom Riders from the north would arrive around the corner,
Riding federally desegregated, public coaches, and
The same local sheriffs would stand by, and
Let them get beaten, assaulted, brutally, and
Battered by white-hot mobs –
Only to arrest the so-called outside agitators?
Probably all of you, Miss Lillie, were battered by many of the same hands, and
Abandoned by many of the same actors of local justice.
I estimate Miss Lillie to be my grandparents’ age, and
By that day, they’d already fled and made their way to Kentucky.
I am wondering where Miss Lillie is now – right now?
(I take a deep sigh and realize that I’ve not yet reached the mass incarceration part of the museum, and ultimately just skimmed on by.
Graciously, the final exhibit is a “Recovery room,” a hall of walls of portraits,
which we might also call “mugshots,”
As each face had all, actively, over centuries,
Activated against oppression.
I recognized writers, musicians, poets, painters, politicians, preachers, teachers, activists of all flavors, and
After the weight of the truth shown in each timeframe, this left me feeling full of joy.
And, I moaned along with the tunes, there, too.
She’d had had enough, and
Though reluctant before,
Miss Lillie could no longer stand by, and
Just wait for justice, and
Just go on about her own merry way, and
Pretend like this is ok, and
Adjust to the insanity of segregation, and
The very look on her face said this is “why we can’t wait.”
Her face calm, but
The mug shot ID, hanging around her neck like a shackle: #7010.
Business as usual, and for sure somebody’s gettin’ paid.
So, she not knowing.
She, not knowing if this all will work.
If getting arrested today mattered.
If any of this is worth it.
If this time change is coming,
having nothing left but Faith…
in herself, in others, and
Somehow faith in her nation… to do the right thing,
Despite this day, and
In spite of the many apparent setbacks, and
A million everyday,
Tiny little cuts.
That day, Miss Lillie rose to the occasion.
She and all these others stepped up so we could step out, and
Step in here now,
Free to learn about each step along our legacy of peace.
I’m now in awe of Miss Lillie, and
Take a step back and
Smile at her, and
Take in the glory of this sensation.
Hats off to you, Miss Lillie.