The Equal Justice Initiative had specific objectives when it set out to build the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Included in these are “truth telling, reflection, and education.” Friends Renita, Valerie, and I found that truth telling at these two sites is accompanied by a range of emotions from disbelief, sadness, outrage, and an attempt to see the way forward.
The way forward almost always involves reflection and almost always ends up with more questions than answers. I began to ask myself about my own experiences and personal connection to race relations as I was growing up in my own family, community, schools, and at work. And what role did historical context play? What were the local community, State, and National events or influences that shaped my perception of race relations during these times?
The US Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954, however, my own schools in Ninety Six, SC. didn’t desegregate until 1973, 19 years later. Yet, neither my close nit group of high school friends nor I remember that we had any significant race problems during desegregation. There surely had to have been resistance, perhaps on both sides, for us to have waited 19 years to desegregate.
Also, I think about my early years in the workforce. I started working in textile mills when I was sixteen and don’t remember any African American there. Like many areas in South Carolina and in the South, textile mills were still a very large part of the economy in 1970. There was almost nowhere else to work. So, where did African Americans work?
When I was 21 and fresh out of college and US Army Basic Combat Training, I began working in law enforcement. I went from patrol officer in my hometown (Ninety Six, SC) to county deputy (jailer, Greenwood, SC), to educator. I taught at Piedmont Technical College (Greenwood, SC), with one of my teaching duties at Greenwood Correctional Center teaching Adult Basic Education (ABE). What were my experiences with race relations during these jobs?
I do remember that my class at Greenwood Correctional Center was mostly African American (one room school house in the back of the Wardens office). That’s telling, considering that my class was mandatory for inmates who wanted to learn carpentry and didn’t have a high school diploma or equivalency.
A highlighted statistic caught my attention in the Legacy Museum.
“In 1972 there were 300,000 people incarcerated in the US. Today there are 2.3 million."
This statistic is attributed to the Nixon Administration’s War on Drugs, which is alleged to have come from the “desire to criminalize African Americans.” This allegation comes from Journalist Shane Bauer and is disputed by others. You can read more in his book American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment. It’s an in depth look at private prison systems.
However, the number of African American incarcerations is higher, which coincides with my observation while teaching at the Greenwood Correctional Center. See the (prison policy initiative).
Another good book that sheds light on conscious or unconscious racial biases is a personal account by former Soldier and head of the West Point history department, Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause, by Ty Seidule.
Read on to learn what Renita, Valarie, and I experienced in Montgomery, Alabama.