Just “Mrs. Johnson.” It sounds anonymously inconsequential, but thanks to the contemplative, and harrowing, National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, she is being remembered. She is not alone. Some 4,000 others who were the victims of lynching, now have their names—and those of the counties from which they came—planted on steel monuments, in powerful fashion.
That memorial, and the nearby Legacy Museum, have welcomed some 400,000 visitors in the year since they were erected. Many other civil rights museums and sites have sprung up, creating a popular brand of tourism. It is as if the South is ready to take at least some responsibility for sins of its past. Not unlike the European nation that has been the most reflective about its darkest hour.
To each traveler, his or her own motivation. My decision to make a nine-day pilgrimage through Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Louisiana arose partly out of my recent theater reporting. Fairview, which won the Pulitzer Prize this year, ultimately dares its (largely white) audience to trade places with the African American cast on stage. A new production of Raisin in the Sun doesn’t change a word of Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic play, but the final scolding from mother to son is instead directed at the audience. Toni Stone is the true story of the first woman to play professional baseball in the Negro leagues. Staring us down, Toni asks, “you think you could tell the white people to care about us”?
So yes, I was feeling shamed and blamed. And when I saw 4,000 named on those steel blocks, I felt a need to be forgiven.
Throughout the journey, I was moved by Martin Luther King’s words, sickened by the statues of Jefferson Davis and Dr. J. Marion Sims, and inspired by the work of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative (the group behind the National Memorial). But what impacted me most were the women. There are, not surprisingly, many more male names than females on those steel monuments, but there are plenty of the latter: hanged for crimes like forgetting to address someone as “Mister” or “Ma’am,” or for trying to protect a child.
We all know about Rosa Parks, though it is still powerful to stand on the corner where that seemingly ordinary woman would not give up her seat. It is always good to be reminded of Fannie Lou Hamer, who mesmerized the 1964 Democratic convention with her angry demand that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party be seated—and heard. (“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”)
But as you visit the growing number of museums, so many other names recur. Ella Baker was the granddaughter of a slave and is considered the mother of the civil rights movement. She did it quietly, but with incredible efficiency. A teacher named Jo Ann Robinson organized the critical bus boycott of 1955. Diane Nash was a key strategist behind SNCC. (“Who the hell is Diane Nash?” asked Attorney General Robert Kennedy when he heard she was resuming the Freedom Rides.) Viola Liuzzo was murdered by the KKK in 1965 for driving registered voters to the polls. Ida B. Wells and Margaret Walker were educators/writers whose words mattered. Walker’s in particular, still resonate: “The word of fire burns today. On the lips of our prophets in an evil age.”
My tour group was fortunate to meet at least four or five women who have endured tremendous pain and sorrow, and who are determined to keep the narrative going. Minnie Watson is about to retire from decades of guiding folks through the small home in Mississippi where Medgar Evers—whom she knew—was murdered. She spoke with emotion about what the Evers family had to do to feel secure. “They lived with the refrigerator against the door,” she said. “The kids were taught to always sit under the window.” There are still bloodstains from that night, a night “they waited for an ambulance that never came.”
The Rev. Carolyn McKinstry was a young teen when she was volunteering at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. She had gone downstairs to the basement bathroom and urged a small group of giggling girls to come upstairs. A bomb would hit shortly after, taking the lives of four of those girls, still down below. A phone warning had come a few minutes before, but, McKinstry says, “bombings were a way of life in Birmingham.” She vividly recalls the details of that fateful day, including the subject of the preacher’s sermon. (“A love that forgives.”) Does she herself follow those words? “If no one asks for that forgiveness, it’s on them,” says this woman, who now travels to speak on conflict resolution. “I’ve done my own.”
Annie Pearl may hardly be able to walk now, but she has marched often. Including, as a teen, over the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma. She is a tough, feisty lady: “I’ve extended my legacy,” she boasts, “being jailed twice this year.” She is mostly focused on voter registration these days, and is proud to say, “Dr. King did not have many private conversations, but whenever he would see me, he’d say, ‘Hello, Annie Pearl!’”
Perhaps most memorable was Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine students to enter Central High in Little Rock in an attempt to integrate. They have had their share of attention and awards over the years, but seeing Elizabeth up close, it is obvious the trauma still reverberates. She claims her short-term memory is gone, but the long one remains. “I expected kids to be mean, but I had no idea we would hear those words spoken by adults, and that the administrators would turn away,” she says. She learned to become numb and silent. “Most the attacks on me were from behind, and only once did I look back.” Does she feel like a hero? “I was always afraid every day, but I don’t cry anymore.”
And there were so many more: Vera Harris, who still lives in her original house in Memphis, is remembered for feeding and housing Freedom Riders. Mary Hoover runs a soul food eatery in Mississippi’s Delta and along with her husband, Sylvester, works hard to keep visitors aware of how things were—and are—in their depressed area. Despite Paul Simon’s words, the Delta today is hardly “shining like a National guitar.”
These are storytellers, all of them, and one can only hope the narrative will continue when they are gone. The growing number of organized tours is certainly a hopeful sign. And fortunately, the South has a pretty good record when women wield the pen as weapon. From Harriet Beecher Stowe, whom Abraham Lincoln credited with starting “this great war,” to a couple of one-hit wonders named Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee. Not to mention the tales and touch of Eudora Welty. Playwrights Lynn Nottage, Lydia Diamond, Jackie Sibblies Drury, and Lori-Suzi Parks are filling our stages with grit (theirs) and guilt (ours) and we are all the better for it.
“Mrs. Johnson” surely had a story to tell as well. Sadly, we never got to hear it.