By Conference Minister Diane Weible
This is the second part in a series about impressions and thoughts from the trip I took to Alabama with the other Conference Ministers in November. We visited Civil Rights sites in Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham.
One of the things that made a huge impression on me last month when Conference Ministers visited the Civil Rights sites in Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham, Alabama, was that slavery did not end with the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation or even the 1865 passage of the 13th Amendment. Slavery just evolved.
After slavery was abolished there was a very short-lived attempt to truly free those who had been held in bondage and redress the inequities of slavery. Land taken by the Federal Government during the Civil War was promised to the freed slaves so they could start a new life and farm their own land. But within months, President Johnson returned all the land to the former white owners and the freed slaves were forced to ask those white land owners for jobs. While they may have been free in name, they continued to be treated as slaves.
Following reconstruction, the Jim Crow laws perpetuated the “lesser than” status of black Americans through segregation and other laws meant to make sure they knew that just existing as a human being with black skin made them illegal and inferior. They were forced to suffer the power and control of the white Americans—all of which was supported by the laws of this country.
Then there was the period of lynching. While the slaughter of any American was illegal under the law, the law turned a blind eye when it came to African Americans. For me, a white American, as I walked through the Lynching Memorial, I had to come to terms with the fact that my flesh and blood ancestors may have been in the those pictures I saw of laughing white people celebrating around the lynching tree while a black American hung by a rope. I wondered if my ancestors sent one of those postcards that depicted human beings hanging from trees with a hand-written note, “Wish you were here!” These are not made-up stories, these were actual events that was meant to instill fear in anyone who was not born with white skin. And it worked. And, even more horrific, that fear remains embodied in every one of their descendants.
When American society began to understand the horror of lynching’s and killings and shootings and public opinion forced law enforcement to abide by the law and arrest the white perpetrators, a new form of lynching evolved—the death penalty. The Alabama Lynching Memorial calls the death penalty the Stepchild of Lynching. All-white law enforcement would arrest blacks for crimes they may or may not have committed and then they would be tried by all-white juries and when they were convicted and given the death penalty, there was no outcry of brutality. They were following the law. The electric chair became a legal way to kill black Americans that was socially sanctioned by white society.
And the truth is, today’s Mass Incarceration problem in our country is just the latest evolution in slavery and Jim Crow and lynching. Mass Incarceration began in the 1980s with the War on Drugs. The number of people incarcerated for drug offenses went from 40,900 in 1980 to 452,964 in 2017. Most of them are people of color despite the fact that statistics show white people and people of color use drugs at similar rates. Of the total number of people incarcerated, African Americans are incarcerated at a rate 5 times that of whites.
Michelle Alexander, in her introduction to the book, The New Jim Crow, says, “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.”
As I walked through these sites and saw the exhibits that depicted so clearly the evolution of slavery from the very beginning to present day, I realized that the only way fundamental change is going to happen is if we start talking about the evolution of slavery instead of the end of slavery and if our awareness becomes so deep that when we see injustice we cannot help but speak up and say something.
As a white person, I cannot even imagine what it must be like to carry with me the knowledge of the way my parents and grandparents and great grandparents were treated and know that not only have we done a horrible job of admitting our sin and making apologies but that we perpetuate the sin through what seems to be socially acceptable means. And the only way I’m ever going to come close to understanding the depth of pain is if I take the time to hear the truth of the stories and experiences my black and brown siblings live with every single day. It’s all that any of us can do.