A police car drove by, and I felt a stab of fear—would we get in trouble for this? I told my husband to hurry up, and he hopped in the car. We drove off, and I was struck by the lack of ceremony. My kids cried in the backseat, and I gripped the steering wheel as we headed back up the coast, still looking over my shoulder to see if we would be stopped. I was surprised at how nervous I was and by how small our action felt. My husband reassured me that it was worth it, for our own sakes if nothing else.
We were starting, just barely, to understand the mysterious authority that we give memorials to determine which stories will be told through the generations and which will be forgotten. At a moment in May when debate was crescendoing on the opposite side of the country over the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans, we were starting to realize the subtle power memorials have over the sins of our past—the power either to hide them or to bring them into the light. I was starting to wonder at all the untold history we would rather forget. Of the collective sins we long the most to disregard, America’s tragic history of lynching might top the list. But what struck me on our journey was this: Buried sins cannot be repented of.
Learning to See the Sins
The memorial for Alonzo Tucker wasn’t my idea, not entirely.
A few months earlier, I had found myself in the offices of Bryan Stevenson and the advocacy group he started, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Stevenson has worked for three decades as a lawyer, advocating for justice for those on death row and rising to national fame in part because of his best-selling memoir, Just Mercy. He’s become one of the most prominent voices for racial justice in the United States.
Stevenson, who grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and directed the gospel choir at Eastern University before graduating from Harvard Law School, laces his public appearances with Scripture and says his faith is the backbone of his work. I wanted to see some of that work first hand.
I was looking at a large wall completely covered by beautiful glass jars on wooden shelves. The jars were filled with dirt, shades of green and brown and gold and rust, stacked row upon row from the floor to the high ceiling. It seemed beautiful, until I took a closer look: Each jar bore a name and a location. Stevenson told us that each of the jars contained soil from a site of a confirmed lynching in the state of Alabama. That entire wall—all of those jars, all of those names—was still just a partial story of one state, a snapshot of a history I was never fully taught.
Stevenson began his education in black classrooms and watched as lawyers had to fight to desegregate his local school system. He is well aware that Americans are raised on widely differing versions of history. Which is why, after 30 years of pursuing fair and just treatment for incarcerated people in the criminal justice system, he is changing his strategy of combatting racial bias.