Story and photos by Kym Young
"Is that Dr. King’s room?” Teja asks.
“Yes. That’s the room he slept in, and the balcony is just out that door.”
Teja gets quiet, then asks if it’s ok to take a picture. Henry Banks, host of the People of Color radio show, is emotional as he stands outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. She asks if he will be in the picture.
Teja and Henry in front of Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Teja never told me why she wanted Henry in that photo, but it’s one of her favorites from our April pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama, to attend the opening of the National Peace and Justice Memorial, honoring the lives of African Heritage victims of lynching in America, and the Legacy Museum, documenting the lives and struggle of African Americans from slavery to mass incarceration.
This was my first trip with Teja, my 11-year-old granddaughter. Just us girls. I was looking forward to sharing a dark part of our past with her. She was just excited to go. Neither of us could imagine the things we would learn.
I grew up in Roanoke City, Virginia, part of the “genteel South.” I drove through Alabama once. I knew its legacy of racial terror and injustice, and I had no desire to live or really even visit there. But this trip was special. Finally we were beginning to look at and acknowledge the pain and trauma of our legacy of racism and oppression. Before even visiting it, this memorial was already life-changing for me—little did I know how much.
He is taken to the most prominent square in the city and strung up. The rope broke and the man was riddled with bullets. The body was then dragged by the rope for a mile to the scene of the crime and burned in the presence of at least 10,000 rejoicing persons. Many women were in the crowd, and some helped to hang the negro and to drag the body.
~New York Times, November 12, 1909
In Cairo, Illinois (pronounced “Karo,” like the syrup), we stopped to view the site of the 1909 lynching of William “Froggie” James. Until that moment my understanding of white women’s participation in lynchings had been that of passive bystanders and false accusers.
My heart and mind grasped onto the images of white women taking part in the mutilation and torture of this man’s body and I could not fathom it.
Never in my life has that perception seemed unrealistic, given the propensity for white women to be characterized as passive, fragile, and virtuous. Yet here I was, only 12 hours into the trip, opening my eyes to the level of participation white women had—and still have—in the lynching of Black America.
Teja was curious about the lack of any marker or acknowledgement of the lynching of Froggie James in Cairo.
Once we were back on the bus, she looked through a book about lynchings in America. After a bit she gave it back and laid her head on my shoulder. “That’s scary,” she whispered. “All those pictures of black people.”
And she stayed in my arms until she fell asleep.
On May 14, 1961, a group of Freedom Riders opposing segregation was attacked in Anniston, Alabama. They were beaten with lead pipes and their bus was set on fire.
Addie Mae Collins.
Carol Denise McNair.
Teja walks up and touches the marker with their names engraved in bronze. Her finger lingers on their ages.
“They were my age?” She turns to me with confusion and disbelief in her voice. “They were little girls like me.”
She didn’t say another word until we left.
On September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. Three 14-year-old girls and
one 11-year-old were killed. Twenty more were injured, including
a 12-year-old with glass embedded in her face.
The perpetrators were caught almost immediately,
but didn’t face imprisonment until 2001. One served no time at all.
The soothing sound of water flows beneath the monuments, enveloping us in an eerie semblance of peace at last. Teja’s soft singing wafts over my shoulder, resting my mind, giving my soul some comfort. She sings to “settle herself,” as she calls it. I can see the tiredness in her face. I’m overwhelmed.
It’s a beautiful tribute. No longer lost in silence and darkness. Their lives never forgotten. Never again to lie alone and unknown. There is a resting place now for our ancestors. There is a resting place at last.
As I studied the artistic expressions of loss and pain, seeking the souls of my stolen ancestors among the pillars of the dead, I chanced upon two white women. The younger one smiled for the other’s camera while pointing up at the hanging pillars.
A sense memory from a bygone age that was just yesterday flashes over me...Your lily whiteness, curled and coiffed at a Sunday picnic beneath trees bearing bloodied fruit…
Something in me snapped. I froze and could not speak. I felt I should say something to these women, but I needed to find Teja, who had gone on ahead of me. It didn’t leave my mind though....white women....lynchings...
The National Peace and Justice Memorial opened on April 26.
Each pillar represents a county where lynching occurred.
At last, they have a resting place.
Teja and I sit in the Reflection Gardens, a contemplative spot for those who are tired or overwhelmed by the memorial. Teja’s feet hurt; my soul hurts.
My mind was by now consciously connecting with the fact of white women’s involvement in oppression and injustice. I was already formulating a plan of action. I had to. My anger and injustice radar were overworking and I needed to rein them in, turn this into a learning experience if I was going to emotionally survive it.
Movement to Overcome by Texas sculptor Michael Pavlovsky
was selected for the Civil Rights Museum atrium. It represents the unknown millions who have struggled for civil rights—slowly, but always upwards.
Where are my children? Have you seen them? A mother’s frantic voice greets us from the darkness of a slaveholding warehouse in the Legacy Museum. Ghostly holographs recreate the pain and terror.
I thought I was prepared for this...but I can’t shake the image of gaily dressed little white girls dancing around the blackened corpses hanging from the trees.
I made it 15 minutes before I was so overwhelmed by the amount of documentation white people had amassed to record the sale and destruction of human beings that I grabbed Teja and fled from it in tears.
Teja comes face
to face with exhibits showing the bill of sale for a newborn infant into slavery (left), and civil rights marchers declaring their humanity (below).
For Teja and I, what began as a girls’ trip became a life-changing experience that we’re both still processing. What I do know is that our struggle is not lost. Our lives are never forgotten. Our spiritual quest for recognition of our humanity is forever entangled in our physical quest for life and liberty. It’s an investment in us!
White women, I’m telling you something now...
We all know you are stronger and fiercer than you let on. Your continued perpetuation of the fragile, pure feminine lady is a big part of the legacy of racism and the divide between yourselves and women of color.
What are you feeding to your children? What milk of humanity are you tainting with denial of your complicity in a system that separates you from your sisters? Turn back to face me and see my pain and rage.
I am not going to accept the myth of your fragility and purity any longer, nor will I accept your excuses for not acting out in the face of injustice.
When we sit together in those conversations about injustice and racial oppression, and we speak directly to white women’s involvement, apathy and lack of response or fear of speaking up, I want you to remember the lynchings white women committed.
Do not excuse these horrible actions or the subsequent years of ingrained behavior. It’s time we all recognize and begin to deal with the scope and magnitude of what this country has visited on people of color.
We can no longer lay total blame at the feet of white male patriarchy nor can we excuse white women on the grounds that they, too, are oppressed. You were told lies to justify your culpability in our oppression and it’s time we all face the truth, tell the truth and change the future.
When I began to learn about the involvement of white women in the actual murder of lynchings—beyond the false accusations of sexual assault, beyond the gleeful photos of white girls and women smiling beneath the mutilated bodies of our ancestors—my soul cried out in waves of anguish.
My tears were not enough to wash the “pure, fragile visions of delicate white womanhood” from my mind. This is the true nature of the schism between us.