by Sarah Withrow King
As the sun set and the wind picked up, we stood under this tree and held a memorial for four men who were lynched here. Beaten and hung. Murdered.
We dug soil from the ground that once absorbed their blood, and we prayed, wept, and sang. We remembered the mothers of the men and boys killed there in 1897 and thought of the mother of Jesus, who stood at the foot of the cross as her son was beaten and hung. Murdered.
I was in Montgomery, Alabama, in mid-December as part of a two-day retreat for evangelical leaders and activists. We were hosted by Eastern University alumni Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in order to study the legacy of slavery, racial terror, and Jim Crow, manifesting today as a racially- and economically-biased “justice” system that levies harsh punishments on black and brown bodies, disproportionately executes men and women of color, and condemns poor children and children of color to death in prison. We asked ourselves how we could commit to doing uncomfortable things in pursuit of justice.
One good first step: get close. As a raced-as-white person, that means getting close to the reality that my ancestors participated in and profited from the confinement of black bodies. They’re gone now, but my grandfathers may have had first-hand stories of lynchings. It means getting close to the reality that while I try to reject racism, I am the product of white privilege. It means getting close to my own embedded, implicit biases so that I can look them in the eye and cast them out. As a Christian, it means wrestling with these words of Jim Wallis: “Whiteness is an idol. Idols separate us from God. Whiteness separates white Christians from God.”
Bryan Stevenson stands at the docks where enslaved humans were brought to Montgomery, even long after the importation of enslaved Africans was banned.
We visited the docks and rail yard where enslaved human beings were brought to Alabama. The importation of humans from Africa for the slave trade was banned before Alabama became a state, but in a few decades the population of enslaved humans rocketed from 40,000 to well over 400,000.
The era of slavery was followed by an era of racial terror: lynching. Imagine if Germany today was still using gas chambers to execute people and those people were disproportionately Jewish. In the United States, we still disproportionately incarcerate and execute black bodies, despite our legacy of terrorizing slavery and lynching, which should chasten and change us…and yet much of the church remains silent.
The walls of EJI are lined with photos of the men, women, and children with whom they have worked over the last three decades. The photos of the children sentenced to die in prison are perhaps the most heart-breaking one can imagine. I challenge anyone who believes that our system is just or merciful or right to look at these photos—of sobbing, terrified children being ripped from their families, sentenced to die in prison, often for nonviolent crimes committed before the child’s brain was fully formed—and tell me everything is fine.
I challenge anyone who believes that our system is just or merciful or right to watch the story of Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. Hinton was locked up based on the claim that a revolver taken from his mother’s house was used in two murders and an additional crime. Stevenson and EJI enlisted firearms experts to prove that the evidence from the murders simply did not match the ballistics of Hinton’s mother’s revolver. Yet for 12 years, Alabama prosecutors refused to re-examine the case. Hinton recalled for us the conversation he had with the detective who arrested him. “You’ve got the wrong guy!” Hinton declared. “Probably so,” said the detective, “but you’ll do. There are five reasons I know you’re going away for this crime: You’re black, a white man will say you did it, and we’ll get a white prosecutor, a white judge, and a white jury.” It was 1983.
Hinton is a tall man, and he slept in the fetal position on a short, hard prison cot for three decades. One of his first purchases after being released in April 2015 was a California King mattress. When he spoke to us early that December morning, he had been out of jail for seven months. He’s slept in the fetal position every night since his release; he can’t stretch out. “I forgive them,” he says, “even though they haven’t asked for forgiveness. I forgive them so I can sleep at night.”
In order to rid our bodies, our minds, and our country of the disease of racial injustice, we must treat it. Ta-Nehisi Coates points out that, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” My parents did not teach me to be racist. My parents did not teach me to exploit my privilege. These things were simply part of the fabric of my cultural tapestry.
In the coming weeks, I’ll write more about my time at EJI and explore in more depth the legacy of slavery, racial terror, and Jim Crow. I’ll consider what it means to be raced-as-white in this current time and place, to be ashamed of and to lament the past but also to figure a way forward that is humble and rooted in the love and redemptive power of Jesus.
Your homework? Read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Sarah Withrow King is the Deputy Director of the Sider Center and the author of two forthcoming books, Animals Are Not Ours (No Really, They’re Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology. (Wipf & Stock) and Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith (Zondervan).