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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.
The title of this blog and the picture above relate to Norman Rockwell’s (1964) painting depicting Ruby Bridges on her way to school in a newly desegregated New Orleans. In over half a century, this picture has never lost its power and remains iconic.
Attending conferences, especially such a large one as the ASC, is always food for thought. The range of subjects covered, some very small and niche, others far more longstanding and seemingly intractable, cause the little grey cells to go into overdrive. So much to talk about, so much to listen to, so many questions, so many ideas make the experience incredibly intense. However, education is neither exclusive to the conference meeting rooms nor the coffee shops in which academics gather, but is all around. Naturally, in Atlanta, as I alluded to in my previous entry this week, reminders of the civil rights movement are all around us. Furthermore, it is clear from the boarded-up shops, large numbers of confused and disturbed people wandering the streets, others sleeping rough, that many of the issues highlighted by the civil rights movement remain. Slavery and overt segregation under the Jim Crow laws may be a thing of the past, but their impact endures; the demarcation between rich and poor, Black and white is still obvious.
The message of civil rights activists is not focused on beatification; they are human beings with all their failings, but far more important and direct. To make society fairer, more just, more humane for all, we must keep moving forward, we must keep protesting and we must keep drawing attention to inequality. Although it is tempting to revere brave individuals such as Ruby Bridges, Claudette Colvin, Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X to name but a few, this is not an outcome any of them ascribed to. If we look at Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘“The Drum Major Instinct” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church’ he makes this overt. He urges his followers not to dwell on his Nobel Peace Prize, or any of his other multitudinous awards but to remember that ‘he tried’ to end war, bring comfort to prisoners and end poverty. In his closing words, he stresses that
If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.
These powerful words stress practical activism, not passive veneration. Although a staunch advocate for non-violent resistance, this was never intended as passive. The fight to improve society for all, is not over and done, but a continual fight for freedom. This point is made explicit by another civil rights activist (and academic) Professor Angela Davis in her text Freedom is a Constant Struggle. In this text she draws parallels across the USA, Palestine and other countries, both historical and contemporaneous, demonstrating that without protest, civil and human rights can be crushed.
Whilst ostensibly Black men, women and children can attend schools, travel on public transport, eat at restaurants and participate in all aspects of society, this does not mean that freedom for all has been achieved. The fight for civil rights as demonstrated by #blacklivesmatter and #metoo, campaigns to end LGBT, religious and disability discrimination, racism, sexism and to improve the lives of refugees, illustrate just some of the many dedicated to following in a long tradition of fighting for social justice, social equality and freedom.
This year the American Society of Criminology conference (Theme: Institutions, Cultures and Crime) is in Atlanta, GA a city famous for a number of things; Mitchell’s novel, (1936), Gone with the Wind and the home of both Coca-Cola, and CNN. More importantly the city is the birthplace and sometime home of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the city there are reminders of King’s legacy, from street names to schools and of course, The King Center for Non-Violent Social Change.
This week @manosdaskalou and I visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights, opened in 2014 with the aim of connecting the American Civil Rights Movement, to broader global claims for Human Rights. A venue like this is an obvious draw for criminologists, keen to explore these issues from an international perspective. Furthermore, such museums engender debate and discussion around complex questions; such as what it means to be free; individually and collectively, can a country be described as free and why individuals and societies commit atrocities.
According to a large-scale map housed within the Center the world is divided up into countries which are free, partially free and not free. The USA, the UK and large swathes of what we would recognise as the western world are designated free. Other countries such as Turkey and Bolivia are classified as partially free, whilst Russia and Nigeria are not free. Poor Tonga receives no classification at all. This all looks very scientific and makes for a graphic illustration of areas of the world deemed problematic, but by who or what? There is no information explaining how different countries were categorised or the criteria upon which decisions were made. Even more striking in the next gallery is a verbatim quotation from Walter Cronkite (journalist, 1916-2009) which insists that ‘There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.’ Unfortunately, these wise words do not appear to have been heeded when preparing the map.
Similarly, another gallery is divided into offenders and victims. In the first half is a police line-up containing a number of dictators, including Hitler, Pol Pot and Idi Amin suggesting that bad things can only happen in dictatorships. But what about genocide in Rwanda (just one example), where there is no obvious “bad guy” on which to pin blame? In the other half are interactive panels devoted to individuals chosen on the grounds of their characteristics (perceived or otherwise). By selecting characteristics such LGBT, female, migrant or refugee, visitors can read the narratives of individuals who have been subjected to such regimes. This idea is predicated on expanding human empathy, by reading these narratives we can understand that these people aren’t so different to us.
Museums such as the Center for Civil and Human Rights pose many more questions than they can answer. Their very presence demonstrates the importance of understanding these complex questions, whilst the displays and exhibits demonstrate a worldview, which visitors may or may not accept. More importantly, these provide a starting point, a nudge toward a dialogue which is empathetic and (potentially) focused toward social justice. As long as visitors recognise that nudge long after they have left the Center, taking the ideas and arguments further, through reading, thinking and discussion, there is much to be hopeful about.
In the words of Martin Luther King Jr (in his 1963, Letter from Birmingham Jail):
‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly’