Peace and Justice
Last week I had the privilege of attending the dedication of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice here in Montgomery. Thousands of people from all over the country and world were in town for the opening and three days of special activities. The dedication ceremony was celebratory yet solemn, less public and without the attention of the press, a quieter and holy time. There were clergy and religious leaders present from various denominations and faiths. Prayers were offered that the memorial to over 4000 lynching victims might be a place of healing for our country as we continue to struggle with racial inequality. I walked away humbled again by the atrocities committed against human beings but much more hopeful than I anticipated.
Some have said that this memorial is a step backwards, that it will re-open old wounds and give rise to more anger between the races. “We’ve made so much progress,” some say. “Let’s concentrate on the positive and move on.” Others say that the memorial and the admission of such violence is crucial for society to be able to move on. Some want to minimize the talk about wrongs committed in the past. Some want more public acknowledgement of those wrongs. Both want things to improve
Part of what I learned or revisited last week had to do with institutional racism. We tend to think of racists as individuals who are hateful toward members of another race. We also tend to think that we are not racist as long as we are kind to people of different races. We have difficulty accepting the importance of conversations about events that happened before we were born or by people other than us. We have difficulty seeing how our laws and policies protect some and hurt others.
Those who were lynched were not simply killed by a few bad folks here and there. Lynchings were carried out by mobs. And the actions of those mobs were ignored, covered up, and condoned by the entire country. There were certainly many voices which spoke out against the killings but society as a whole, in the north and south, allowed an obvious evil to go on. In 1922 legislation was passed by the House of Representatives to make lynchings illegal. Taking the life of another human being without due process of law is always illegal, of course. But that legislation did not pass the United States Senate. Institutional racism would include those who did the lynching, those who watched it, those who did not vote against it, those who elected such officials, and those who cared not enough even to vote or speak out. Institutional racism includes both knowing and unwitting participation.
Much of institutional racism happens through ignorance and denial. The school system in our city, and throughout much of our country for instance, is institutionally racist. Private schools in our town popped up as an immediate reaction to federal desegregation laws. Not all of us were around when that happened. Now, 60 years later, we all decry the state of our public schools. But society has virtually given up on the school system. Had all the attention given to private schools over the past 60 years been paid to public schools, had people with means kept their children in public schools and worked as hard for their success as we have for the success of our private schools, things would be a lot different. Institutional racism is behavior that, innocently or purposely, focuses on what is good for certain members of society without realizing its effect on others. “The system works for me, so it should work for you,” we think. I had nothing to do with the exodus from the public school system 60 years ago but have participated in an unequal system for more than 20 years and, so, have fostered institutional racism.
Repentance is a vital Christian action. We repent of our past sins, to be forgiven and to move on, yes. But we also repent of our sins so as to commit to new behavior. Mary Ward has told me a time or two: “I don’t really want you to be sorry; I want some new behavior.” The Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is a public admission of more than 4000 lives taken illegally and immorally, can either be a step backward or forward. If we look at it as something in the past that we had nothing to do with, it will serve no purpose other than to increase divisions. If we look at it and are inspired to say “Never again”, if we acknowledge and fight against racial injustices which continue in our day, then it will be a beaming light set on a hill.
For me, the Memorial feels right and good. It feels like an important action to help teach me about things I have chosen not to know much about. It leads me to wonder about things going on today which continue to make life unfair for some in society who matter as much as anyone else. It leads me to ask myself what things I am ignoring or using to my own benefit. I want our society to be a place that is good for all people. But usually I just hope it will be that way without really giving much of myself to actually change things. Until I change my behavior, I will continue to foster institutional racism. It’s just not enough for me to be nice to people of different races. I need to help change the system which continues to oppress its citizens. Knowing how to do that is very complicated. But seeing the wrongs of the system is a necessary start.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.