Pierce Pettis’ song, “Alabama, 1959” (from his outstanding 2004 album, Great Big World), is a wistful, melancholy, achingly beautiful song about growing up in Alabama in the 1950s. The lyrics thoughtfully mix nostalgia for a childhood lived in a bygone era with references to the segregation that was simply part of the culture, and a mournful violin part throughout the song evokes both a sense of loss and longing for that time, and also an acknowledgment of the injustice of those days. (It is among my favorite Pierce Pettis songs, and I advise you to go find it and give it a listen or two.
The lyrics are both nostalgic and a stark picture of the segregation and racism of that era and that region:
Football games beneath the lights
No one ever dared to cross the color line
Black faces watched through the fence outside
Don’t use that word, my mother said
It isn’t Christian–call them colored folks instead
So I learned to be polite
As I think about hearing that song for the first time not long after the album’s release, I have to confess that I am embarrassed that has taken me so long to thoughtfully consider and confront the reality of the world and culture that I was born into in 1954. I, too, was born in Alabama, but I have not been back to Alabama even once since I was six months old. But in recent years, I’ve decided I really need to go back there.
I have thought very little about Alabama over the years–I remember the George Wallace presidential runs, I watched the civil rights struggle play out on television, and it isn’t like I forgot I was born there, but it has only been recently that I confronted the reality that I was born in a place and at a time when there were whites-only water fountains and restrooms and when segregation was being vigorously debated (the Brown v. Board of Education case was decided in 1954). (I asked my dad recently if the hospital where I was born had whites-only restrooms and water fountains. He told me he didn’t think so, because I was born in a WAC hospital in Aniston at Fort McClellan–my dad was in the Army Corps of Engineers, serving at the Redstone Arsenal near Hunstville–and President Truman had signed an executive order in 1948 requiring equal treatment and opportunity for all in the military. Real integration in the military would not be a reality for many years, of course, but at least the bathrooms and fountains were probably shared, on-base.)
A couple of years ago I heard a talk by Bryan Stevenson, the director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama and the author of the book, Just Mercy, and the subject of a recently-released docu-drama film with the same name. Stevenson is a lawyer who has worked many years for reforms in the criminal justice system, and helped to obtain justice for prisoners who were wrongly accused and incarcerated. Stevenson also headed the effort to develop the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. The Memorial is an effort to tell the story of the lynchings that took place primarily in the South between 1877 and 1950. Stevenson’s description of the Memorial (which had not yet opened at that time) deeply moved me.
With the Memorial and the museum, EJI not only shines light on the horror and the injustice of the lynchings, but the staff have also done considerable work to identify as many of the victims as possible, to help shed light on this gruesome and shameful period in American history, to make it personal, in effect, so that the names of these men (and women) will not be forgotten.
I feel very much like I am being drawn to Montgomery–the word “pilgrimage” has often come to mind. I feel I am being drawn there, perhaps by a sense of regret or remorse or sadness, but also out of a desire to simply face the truth about our nation’s history, or maybe even to own it, to some degree, as a sin of my country.
I was taught that slavery was merely an aberration, a sad and regrettable error that had been recognized and corrected. I was always taught that my country was founded by pilgrims who sought religious freedom, and then freedom from the tyranny of the King of England. The fact that my country was built on stolen land and stolen labor was essentially swept under the carpet. I did not learn about the laws that systematized racism in my country from the beginning. Now it seems obvious to me that the resistance to the removal of statues and monuments that honor the Confederacy, and the increasingly brazen demonstrations by white nationalists and the so-called “alt-right” since the 2016 elections are indicators of the persistence of a deeply-rooted racism and white supremacy in this country (and almost certainly a backlash against the two-term Obama presidency).
So I will go to Montgomery one day. I need to see the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I don’t know what I expect to happen, or to feel. There is certainly a part of me that doesn’t really want to confront the ugly truth, for fear that the horror of it will be unbearable–a sure sign of “white fragility” in me, I know. But there is another part of me that simply wants to sit for a time in this reality, to contemplate the injustice that is intertwined with my own past, and to shed at least some portion of my ignorance.
And I imagine there will be weeping.
*Lyrics quoted from “Alabama, 1959,” by Pierce Pettis, ℗ 2004 Compass Records.