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A late night walk through a beautiful and terrible garden

Many of my childhood days were spent on my grandfather’s farm and, for better or worse, I became quite adept at the often-brutal tactics required to maintain harmony between the various animals that called the pasture home – the worst was the practice of punishing a squirrel dog by attaching to him by chain the massacred body of the chicken he’d killed, which he’d be forced to drag around for weeks until it was a stinking, disgusting mess.

As disturbing an image as it was, both for the watching children and the tormented dog, it never failed to give the desired result – once the carcass was removed, the dogs slunk slowly by the chickens from then on, careful not to even turn an interested gaze toward them or their roost.

Strange that this occurred to me as I was touring the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) National Museum for Peace and Justice in Montgomery on Friday night – has America ever been forced to drag behind it the stinking, disgusting history of racial terror that defines so much of its past? The answer is no, obviously, and because of that we’ve never learned our lesson and have therefore never been capable of maintaining harmony in our pastures.

The EJI Memorial is a beautiful and terrible place, particularly under the gray cloak of a cloud-filled night sky, akin to a cathedral where hangs from the ceiling the names of every soul lost needlessly to the Crusades which, at the time, seemed so logical and necessary.

It’s easy to see where a cynical person, or one prone to ego-filled fits brought on by various crises of personhood and identity, could gloss over the memorial as yet another class in lessons already learned – we know lynching happened, we know about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, we know about racial terror, we know about slavery and the ways it has morphed over the years – but that’s part of the point.

As children, we’re taught that it’s not enough to simply admit that you broke the rules, you must make amends for that oversight – if you spilled your milk at breakfast, you’ve got to clean it up – and, by this measure, America has only scraped the surface of admitting its atrocities and has not yet even begun to make amends for them.

I walked through the memorial looking overhead for the large, iron slab containing the names of the men, women and children lynched in Dallas County – though I didn’t find it in the memorial, I found it along the grove of unclaimed slabs representing each county.

While the dim lighting prohibited me from making an accurate count, there had to be close to two dozen names etched on Dallas County’s slab, each one representing a human life snuffed out brutally for no reason other than another man’s hate.

And while the memorial is a living document of the tragedies upon which this nation is built, it is also a starting point for owning up to those failures and paying some respect, albeit too late, to those who suffered and their family members who still carry that weight, not to mention Black men and women everywhere who must endure a reality in which their history is ignored while the history of their oppressors is still widely celebrated – counties can take part in EJI’s Community Remembrance Project and, after participating in a series of activities aimed at racial justice, bring their markers home.

There are so many markers there and so few have been claimed, an act representative of a community’s willingness to face its history of racial terror, as well as the ongoing impacts of it, and it is my hope that Dallas County will take charge and work to claim its marker.

Our lawmakers believe monuments should be protected – if that’s true, then every county in this state should have a monument bearing the scars of its troubled past of racial terror, as that story is worthy of being remembered and atoned for in perpetuity.

We cannot solve our nation’s racial conflicts by simply erecting monuments, no more than we can by taking them down, but by admitting that these cruelties happened and forcing otherwise neutral minds to carry the weight of those early traumas and the long-lasting wounds they’ve allowed to fester, we might better create a society of people more attuned to the historic struggles of their neighbors and, on the foundation of that basic-yet-comprehensive understanding, a world better suited to a new, progressive and empathetic American.