It is time to change the narrative, and to right the painful wrongs of the past, Bryan Stevenson says.
On Monday, March 6, Stevenson joined community leaders in Tuscaloosa in unveiling a historical marker that memorializes eight known victims of lynching in Tuscaloosa County. In a moment both somber and joyous, a crowd of about 150 spectators watched Stevenson remove a dark blue drape from the marker.
“We are doing something important and memorable today,” said Stevenson, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). “I hope this will have reverberations throughout the community and this state. We’ve got to start talking about how we change the narrative.
“We’re still living in a time where there’s this narrative of racial differences,” he said.
It is a project that has been a long time coming, Stevenson said. In its 2015 report, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” the EJI documents more than 4,000 racial terror lynchings committed in nine Southern states between 1877 and 1950, and the continuing impact of that violence.
The EJI’s Lynching Marker Project works with residents of communities where lynchings occurred. The memorial marker at 2803 6th St. – in front of the old Tuscaloosa Jail – is the first Tuscaloosa County site to be established by the EJI. The project was birthed to commemorate and memorialize the victims, with the intent of bringing reconciliation and healing, Stevenson said. The EJI has also installed historical markers in Etowah, Jefferson and Lowndes counties in Alabama, and in Abbeville, S.C.
After the unveiling, about 1,000 residents, with many community leaders, met at the nearby First African Baptist Church for a memorial service. It was significant that the program was held at First African Baptist, from whence peaceful protesters were beaten and arrested as they marched to the Tuscaloosa Courthouse on “Bloody Tuesday,” June 9, 1964.
“They were bloodied, but there were no cameras to catch it,” said Stevenson, who grew up in Delaware but has spent half of his life in Alabama.
As part of the project, EJI has begun a Soil Collection Project, which connects individuals with personal narratives by asking them to collect soil in a glass jar labeled with a victim’s name, date and location of the lynching. The jars will form an exhibit in EJI’s Montgomery office.
“We’re going to lynching sites and collecting soil, and we’re putting it on display,” Stevenson said. “It’s a powerful moment to see so many of us carry these burdens. When you dig into that soil, I hope that you lay that burden down.”
Tameko Dumas of Tuscaloosa said that she has attended programs at First African Baptist in honor of the victims of Bloody Tuesday.
“I wanted to come on in today and get information for myself,” said Dumas, who collected EJI brochures for her 88-year-old grandmother. “I think talking about what’s happened is the first step to healing our community.”
Samyra Snoddy, a member of the Civil Rights Task Force Committee in Tuscaloosa, said that she will always remember seeing the marker unveiled.
“It’s bringing awareness to Tuscaloosa,” Snoddy said.
Shining the light into the dark corners of the past
Stevenson said that people throughout Tuscaloosa County came together to talk truthfully about a difficult part of Alabama’s history. That discussion, he said, begins to change the landscape and the future legacy of Alabama.
“We’re not going to get to a healthier place until we do the truth-telling that precedes reconciliation, that precedes reparation, redemption and restoration,” Stevenson said. “I’m hopeful and excited that people came together tonight, that they made a statement, that they committed to continue this conversation on, and I’m very excited about what we can do.”
The EJI awarded $5,000 in college scholarships to winners of its essay contest. Erin Murphy of Paul W. Bryant High School in Tuscaloosa won first place and a $2,000 scholarship for her essay “It’s Not Over … Not Yet.” Ryan Anthony of Northridge High School won second place and $1,500. Eunique Stevenson took third place and $1,000. Broderick Williams and Terri Milsaps tied for fourth place, each winning $500.
“We celebrate our commitment to do justice,” Stevenson said. “We stand against racial inequality. There will be no more racial violence. We change the narrative. … I am persuaded there is power in these words.”
Talking with students attending the event, Stevenson said, “Don’t measure yourself the way other people measure you. Be very diligent. Don’t ever think you don’t have the capacity to change the world. Your income is not a measure of your capacity to change the world.”
The program ended as attendees – starting with Stevenson – lit candles across the sanctuary to songs by members of the University of Alabama’s Afro-American Gospel Choir and choir members from Central High School in Tuscaloosa. Tommie Watkins of Canterbury Episcopal Church gave closing remarks. The benediction was made by the Rev. Thomas Linton.
Snoddy said the day was “incredibly meaningful and the installation of the memorial in Tuscaloosa is a very significant event.”
“Personally, this day means to me that we are evolving in Tuscaloosa,” said Snoddy, whose work through the Civil Rights Task Force includes identifying sites for inclusion on the Civil Rights Trail.
“We’re embracing our history, no matter how ugly it may have seemed,” she said. “But we are here to recognize that these things happened, and we’re here to learn and grow from them. So I’m so proud that EJI was able to come here and put up a sign and make places on the map for really learning about what happened in the civil rights era, and just really being able to take advantage of everything Tuscaloosa really has to offer,” she said.