… but here’s one that might be worth reading. Katharine Coldiron, who grew up in a white Southern family, shares what the National Memorial for Peace and Justice means to her.
News of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opened recently in Montgomery, Alabama, has spread rapidly. More and more people I know have been talking about it and sharing information about it. I keep thinking the same thing: this is a place I needed to visit when I was a kid.
I grew up in a white Southern family. A lot of weird and terrible stuff swirled around in my childhood that I’ve tried to sort out and discard in order to be a decent citizen. I present some of it here without endorsement, in an attempt to inform, not offend.
The racism I grew up with was not overt. It wasn’t Nazism. More like tribalism. Black people weren’t subhuman—that was a foolish and wrong idea. But they were different from white people. It was okay to Otherize black people, to steer clear of them, to make jokes about them. It was okay to say ugly words about them in private. (I protested about a particular word once; I was laughed off, because a child should not criticize her elders’ choice of words.)
As for the South’s bloody history, it was never denied, but usually minimized. I distinctly remember a family member telling me, more than once, that the Klan wasn’t nearly as well-organized nor as dangerous as people say it was. It was more a bunch of guys getting drunk and making each other feel better about their sorry lives, he said. Only a few cells of the Klan were really harmful, he said, and the others got smeared and trumped up because of that harm. I don’t know where this notion came from, but for many years I accepted it; this person, an adult, was the purveyor of a great deal of the information by which I organized my world.
Of course, what he said is untrue. Of course, it is outrageously misinformed and racist. Of course, what inert chapters of the Klan didn’t do is completely irrelevant in the face of the Klan’s abhorrent principles, and what more active chapters did do. And now, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice exists to contradict families like mine who minimize the American history of systematized violence against African Americans.
The copper coffins hang there, in the sky, serving up facts and statistics that cannot be contradicted by family lore. The photos, the jars of soil, the lists, and the testimony—these things are tangible, inarguable.
The copper coffins hang there, in the sky, serving up facts and statistics that cannot be contradicted by family lore. The photos, the jars of soil, the lists, and the testimony—these things are tangible, inarguable. They are real. You can’t shake them off and say they’re exaggerated, or localized, or long enough past not to matter. If you try to say that there must be a logical, legal reason for all those deaths, or that the facts presented are overblown, you will sound, not just tribalist (bad enough), but racist. Overtly racist.
Opening this museum in the Deep South was a bold, crucial move. In New England or California, it would be visited far more readily by white people, I imagine, and in D.C. it would be another one to check off on the list of atrocity tourism, along with the Holocaust Museum. In Alabama, though, it’s a display of dignity and insistence aimed at the exact population that needs to face the museum’s facts.
White Southern adults can elect not to go to this museum, sure. But white Southern children will undoubtedly go on school trips. And they will see truths that no mealy-mouthed explanations can soften.
I wish I’d gone to a museum like this as a kid. I went to Jamestown (boring) and to the D.C. museums (cool, but overwhelming) and to Monticello (very beautiful, smelled good). In Social Studies, we did Native American units that made me feel faintly sad, but in general I went nowhere that contradicted the foundational belief of my upbringing: white people were the center of the world.
Please, docents, end this harmful lie. Open museums like the one in Montgomery and usher in classrooms of children. Force their families to confront fact instead of legend. This is how we change: one display at a time.