Earlier this month, Erin, Oliver, and I took a road trip to Montgomery, Alabama. This was just two weeks before Erin’s birthday and it allowed her to meet her goal of visiting all 50 states in her 50 years of life. (Last week was her 51st birthday, but we figure the pandemic year that stopped most travel gave her a pass on the technical 50 by 50.) Congratulations on the milestone, Erin.

More importantly, the reason we traveled to Montgomery was to take in the history and art and advocacy of the Legacy Sites, the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. The Legacy Museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the Freedom Monument Sculpture Park are stunning, engaging, eye-opening, and maddening. They document and chronicle the history of slavery, racism, mass incarceration, and injustice in the country. They are beautiful spaces and displays and art that commemorate such horror and evil and sadness.

I wish everyone I know could visit one or more of these sites.

I hope we all can learn from the history.

The most important lesson I learned was about the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” I’d read that many times and thought, ‘that makes sense.’ But at the Legacy Museum, seeing the the language of the amendment in the context of the country’s history, I began to understand that that phrase explicitly allowed states to use the penal system to continue to enslave Black men and women. EJI explains it here. So when we talk about mass incarceration today, we’re actually talking about the continuation of slavery. The disproportionate numbers of Black men imprisoned in the U.S. today makes obvious this enslavement is current, it’s now. It never ended.

How do we battle that? We learn, and we give witness.

For the last few years, Erin has served on the Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition, which is coordinating with EJI to recognize Manly McCauley, Daniel Morrow, Jefferson Morrow, Washington Morrow, Cyrus Guy and Wright Woods, men who were lynched in Orange County, North Carolina (Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough are in Orange County). In February, Erin took me and our children to attend the OCCRC’s unveiling of a marker at Carrboro Town Commons to recognized Manly McCauley.

And we drove to Alabama, despite my reservations about going to the state (its history, it damn football team!). I was surprised, and humbled. Alabama was beautiful in spring, downtown Montgomery calm, the Legacy Sites breathtaking.

And there was a surprise.

While we were walking through the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, with its hundreds of hanging tablets — one for each county with one or more documented cases of lynching — the U.S. Navy Blue Angels flew their coordinated air show overhead, mesmerizing us and certainly the crowd of the Beyond the Horizon Air & Space Show at the nearby Maxwell Air Force Base.

Back at the performance space connected to our hotel, there was choreography on the stage—the Streetz Dance Convention and Competition was taking place, talented young girls dancing in pairs or ensembles, some better than anything we’ve seen on the television talent shows.

On Sunday, on our way out of Montgomery, we went to the air show and saw the Golden Knights U.S. Army parachute team float to the tarmac with the American flag, and later we watched a state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jet and history P-51 Red Tail circle the airfield. We spoke with a Secret Service agent who had been on a recent detail protecting Vice President Kamala Harris in North Carolina, and Oliver donned a weighted vest and did pushups for the Air Force recruiters.

We drove home, and I’ve been thinking about the dance of American sin, patriotism, and national pride every day since.



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