Opinion: America’s Future Depends on Clearly Seeing Its Past

A tragic history should be recognized by all

Victor Garlington holds up a photo of the lynching of his great-uncle Richard Putt after a South Carolina honor guard lowered the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds for the last time on July 10, 2015, in Columbia, South Carolina. America cannot move forward, Curtis writes, when so many leaders and citizens are mired in competing visions of its tragic past. (John Moore/Getty Images file photo)

It may be a museum that makes viewers want to look away, with its solemn memorial to the thousands of men, women and children murdered — lynched — in countless acts of domestic terrorism. But facing truth must come before reconciliation, before Americans can clearly see where the tribalism that continues to threaten unity can eventually and inevitably lead.

The Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opening this week in Montgomery, Alabama, is one step toward acknowledging the complicated truth of an America that too many still want to see as all glitter, an unvarnished march toward liberty and justice for all. Of course, the existence of the memorial does not mean those who most need to see it will be planning a trip any time soon.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has been drawing crowds in its prime spot on the National Mall since it opened in 2016. I’m not sure how many members of Congress have been among them, though I would bet that particular roll call is nowhere near 100 percent.

They look without seeing ...

Putting on blinders halts any progress we can hope to have as a nation. And it is all too clear that it is impossible to move forward when so many leaders and citizens are mired in competing visions of the country’s past.

The memorial is opening in a state that just celebrated Confederate Memorial Day, honoring those who fought in a war that nearly split the country in two over the issue of enslaving fellow human beings. We’ve been fighting that war ever since, through Jim Crow laws that mandated everything from where African Americans could live, work and learn to a criminal justice system that is unequally enforced. We’ve been fighting it from the schools to the courts to incarceration.

Who would think that states are still arguing over the monuments that were erected long after the Civil War, during segregation and the civil rights movement, as a rebuke to any who would question white supremacy? Yet the state legislature in Tennessee recently punished the city of Memphis, which discovered a legal way to thwart a state law and moved its Confederate monuments from public spaces. The GOP-dominated House took away $250,000 earmarked for the Memphis bicentennial next year.

All this to protect the memory of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Ku Klux Klan leader best known for orchestrating the massacre of black Union troops. In the month that Memphis recognized the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Democratic state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, who represents that city, condemned the legislature’s actions — and was booed.

Divided loyalties?

It’s not just a Southern thing, not when folks such as GOP Rep. Steve King have displayed the flag, honoring, I suppose, its symbolism, since Iowa’s troops fought on the other side.

Is a nation numbed by the sight of neo-Nazis and white supremacists terrorizing those gathered in a synagogue and a black church to pray even capable of shock when confronted with images of thousands of spectators treating the gruesome spectacle of lynching as family entertainment, with children propped on shoulders, grinning faces, body parts chopped off and passed out as souvenirs and postcards to remember it all?

Their specific “crimes” could be walking behind the wife of a white employer or protesting a husband’s lynching, but all could be classified under the offense of not knowing one’s place, of trying to work hard and get ahead when others’ advancement depended on a boot on the neck.

Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit organization behind the memorial, which, its mission states, “is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.” Stevenson makes the connection between what happened then and what is happening today, and says he has been inspired by museums in other countries and their efforts to shine a light on truth.

“I’m not interested in talking about America’s history because I want to punish America,” Stevenson told The New York Times. “I want to liberate America.”

Like Stevenson, I have visited some of those spaces, South Africa’s Apartheid Museum and Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial. Neither country has exorcised its demons or eliminated its modern challenges. But both provide places for information and reflection that refuse to glorify a past that never was. I look forward to learning in Montgomery, to honoring those who suffered the unimaginable and are now being recognized.

That was America, too.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.  

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