By TERRI CORNWELL
In her May 29 commentary in The News & Advance, Suzanne Fields writes, “Pomp and circumstance depends a lot more on circumstance than pomp.” Fields was describing the graduation at Morehouse College in Atlanta when commencement speaker, Robert F. Smith, a billionaire investor, announced that he would pay off all the college debt for the Class of 2019.
Morehouse College is one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and is known as the alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr. Fields made the point that Smith’s gift was about investing in future opportunities for the students, not about looking back at past societal circumstances that may have placed African-Americans at a disadvantage.
We can celebrate with the Morehouse College students and look ahead to their future accomplishments, but, at the same time, we should also look back to remember those who have struggled to improve the circumstances of those in American society who have suffered from explicit and implicit racism.
Lynchburg’s own HBCU — Virginia University of Lynchburg — recently celebrated its 129th commencement, and an honorary degree was bestowed upon Gloria Williams Campbell, known as “Mother Campbell.” Campbell, one of the founders of Bible Way Cathedral in Danville, was a participant in the non-violent Civil Rights marches of the 1960s. During a prayer vigil in 1963 she was among 47 demonstrators who were beaten by police and hospitalized because of their injuries. Over the years Campbell has worked tirelessly to protest unfair treatment of African-Americans.
Campbell’s story stands as one local example of an individual who was part of our national struggle to end racial segregation — a struggle that is chronicled by the new Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala, (https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/museum).
The Legacy Museum presents an emotional journey through America’s racial history from enslavement to mass incarceration. It is located in a warehouse where slaves were once held prior to being taken to one of the many slave auction sites in Montgomery.
Just a short walk from the Legacy Museum on a hilltop overlooking the city is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to the more than 4,400 African-American men, women and children who were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned or beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. The memorial is a place to acknowledge the victims of America’s racial terror, the remnants of which push through the veil of today’s society much too often.
Known as the “Lynching Memorial,” the space offers visitors a visceral experience of the enormity of the terror that was perpetuated on African-Americans during the Jim Crow Era. The site includes 800 steel monuments, one for each county where lynchings took place. The name of the county and names of the individuals murdered are engraved on the columns. As visitors begin their walk at the top of the hill, level with many columns, they slowly move down beneath columns that hang above them. Outside the memorial lies an identical collection of 800 columns ready to be claimed by each county when it creates a local memorial as our nation’s reconciliation work continues.
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), founded by civil rights lawyer and author Bryan Stevenson, is the organization behind the memorial and is responsible for verifying the information on lynchings. Virginia is represented by 84 reported incidents in more than four dozen counties, including Amherst, Campbell and Nelson. EJI hopes to create a greater awareness and understanding about these incidents of racial terror and generate conversations that move people to truth and reconciliation. EJI will work with communities to help them commemorate and recognize the terror that took place during the Jim Crow Era. Communities are encouraged to collect soil samples from lynching sites and erect historical markers. EJI maintains a collection of these soil samples stored in glass jars at the museum and memorial.
Educational institutions, the faith community and local governments are important players in this remembrance and reconciliation process. The EJI website provides helpful resources where organizations and individuals can learn more about this horrific time in our nation’s history and where community conversations toward reconciliation can begin.
Reconciliation in our time of ubiquitous social media is complicated, but it is a process that must take place. Certainly, our national conversation about race is difficult. Much mistrust and misunderstandings continue to exist, but to move forward, we must first come to terms with our past.
While we celebrate all that has been accomplished in our society to remedy past racial injustice, as well as the specific accomplishments of our young graduates, we must begin the necessary work of racial reconciliation. Local conversations, spurred by the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, are beginning across the country. Now is the time for individuals in the Lynchburg region to begin conversations of our own.
Cornwell is a former adjunct professor at the University of Lynchburg, currently adjunct professor with Virginia University of Lynchburg and the Commissioned Pastor at Rustburg Presbyterian Church. She wrote this commentary for The News & Advance.