My Civil Rights Journey
What I Learned In Alabama
By: Cheyenne Sykes
When I was leaving California on Wednesday, April 25th, I didn’t know what I was expecting to see or hear when I arrived in Alabama. For starters, I thought I would see more white people in Montgomery. I thought I would have at least one negative encounter with police. I thought I would have the N-Word directed at me at least once. Thankfully, I experienced none of that. I did however, experience southern hospitality and kindness. I experienced love and compassion from the people around me. Sure, maybe it was because of the openings of both the Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, that people didn’t want to cause trouble. But I’m grateful that for the few days that I was there, I had a very positive and safe space while I was in Montgomery.
Both The Legacy Museum and the Memorial For Peace and Justice are in the heart of Montgomery, and walking distance from the hotel where I was staying. The museum itself is on the site of a former slave warehouse where slaves were imprisoned until they were sold to plantation owners. When you first walk into the Legacy Museum, you are greeted with pitch black except for the glow of the next room and the holograms of slaves, telling their stories to anyone who will listen to them. Each hologram has a different story. These holograms are placed in life-size replicas of what slave pens used to look like.
One feature that really made me angry were a series of videos that illustrated the details of what happened to a man who was about to be lynched. Newspapers back then advertised these lynchings, inviting people to come with their families to watch a man be hung by the neck until dead. They sold lemonades and popcorn, as though this unlawful and brutal execution was a carnival. They celebrated killing a man who was being killed for having done nothing wrong. After the man died, people took photos with the body, took fingers from the body as souvenirs, and sold photos of the lynching as postcards.
In the mass incarceration section of the museum, there are visitor phone booths, as though you were in prison, where when you picked up the phone, you listened to testimonies of men and women who were in prison. One story was of a man who spent 30 consecutive years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Another was a woman who while in prison was sexually assaulted and became pregnant. Nine months later, she gave birth to a baby girl, who was then taken away from her. Another story was a man in Arkansas who was convicted in his teens, without the possibility of parole, and it’s assumed that he’s still in prison, as he didn’t mention anything about getting out. Lastly, In the center of the museum, there is a wall of jars. Each contained some soil and the name of a lynching victim. These jars of soil are markers of where a man, woman or child was killed.
Photo Credit: Jeanette Egenlauf
When I walked through the gates of the memorial, I took my time getting to where the memorial began. But as I walked through, I was at a loss for words. There were so many names. Names of men, women and children, who were mercilessly slaughtered for petty things or for no reason at all. I don’t have photos of the pillars themselves, as I wanted to be in the moment and appreciate the memorial for what it was. Something that I thought as I walked through, was that this memorial was hauntingly beautiful. There were many plaques at the memorial that I saw, but here are the few that I remember: A woman with her unborn child was killed for protesting the lynching of her husband. A husband, wife and their four children were killed. A man was killed for the suspected murder of a white man. Another was killed for kissing the back of a white woman’s hand. A man was killed for knocking on a white woman’s door. Multiple men were killed for being married to white women. Multiple men were killed for voting or trying to register people to vote. While I was very distraught, I was surprised that I didn’t cry when I was there, but I think because I had already shed my tears at the museum; that I was numb. I still felt things, but I wasn’t able to cry anymore. I was, however, able to comfort someone who was crying, and that is what this experience was about, coming together to comfort and to heal.
Also on the trip, I was able to go through Selma, Alabama. If you don’t recognise the name, this was the city where ‘Bloody Sunday’ occurred. 53 years ago on March 7th, around 600 peaceful protesters were brutally assaulted for trying to march from Selma to Montgomery, to exercise their right to free speech and assembly, and their right be registered to vote. This was where Martin Luther King Jr. came together with townspeople, religious and political figures to fight the segregated south. We met an incredible woman by the name of Joanne Blackmon, who grew up in the segregated south and who marched on ‘Bloody Sunday,’ and ‘Turn Around Tuesday.’ She was an inspiration to me and I’m thankful that I was able to meet and speak with her. We also had a chance to go by the house where King stayed during his visit in Selma, and see Brown Chapel AME Church, where King preached and had congregations. This building was called his ‘Headquarters.’ Our group also had the privilege to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where these historic events took place. Before we walked over however, Mrs. Joanne told us, “I marched for you 53 years ago, today you’ll march for me.” I thought this was really powerful because I had never thought about it that way and as I was walking over, I kept the image of the brave men and women who were marching all those years ago, in the back of my mind. It felt so surreal being there and quite literally, walking in the footsteps of those before me.
I’m so grateful for this experience and I recommend going to Montgomery if you want to learn something new and things about our country’s history that you didn’t already know. I also want to send a massive thank you to the TomKat Foundation for sponsoring this trip to Alabama, Performing Stars for letting me be apart of this historical event, and to Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative for making this happen. This history needs to be acknowledged and I thank them for bringing the horrors of our country’s history to light. If I were to sum up my experience into ten words or less , it would be unforgettable, life-changing, sensational and eye-opening. If our country ever wants to heal and truly be the United States of America, we need to come together and heal the deep wounds that were left before and after the Civil War, and it starts with this museum and especially with this memorial. Another powerful thing that Mrs. Joanne said that stuck with me was “You don’t know where you’re going, until you know where you’ve been.” What that means to me is that unless you understand your history and where you came from, you don’t know what you have to do to change the narrative.
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.”
- Martin Luther King Jr
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