Re-examining a history I thought I knew

By Rebekah Seder
Senior Program Manager, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Last month, I had the privilege of participating in WRAG and Leadership Greater Washington’s Civil Rights Learning Journey, visiting sites in Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, and Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham, Alabama. For me, the trip was an opportunity to get a better understanding of the history of the Movement and of a part of the country that I had never visited. What I wasn’t expecting was the feeling of experiencing a historical narrative that is still being contested and shaped, and of a story that is very much not over.

Bryant’s Grocery is barely discernable behind the vegetation.

Traveling through the Delta, we heard from individuals who are committed to preserving this history from those who seem equally committed to erasing it. If you didn’t know it was there, you would miss Bryant’s Grocery in Money, MS, where Emmett Till crossed paths with Carolyn Bryant. Owned by the family of one of the jurors who acquitted Till’s murderers, the building is crumbling. They want $4 million for what remains of the structure, effectively preventing it from being preserved as a site of remembrance. In the small interpretive center across the street from the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, where the IMG_5687all-white jury let his killers go free, a sign that had marked the place where Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River is riddled with bullet holes. Prominently positioned outside the courthouse, just yards from that destroyed sign, stands a memorial to Confederate soldiers – erected nearly 50 years after the Civil War.

James Chaney’s headstone is supported by a steel frame.

In Neshoba County, MS, nothing marks the spot off a narrow road where civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered, with the complicity of local police. There’s a small marker on the side of the main road, but the land where they were killed is still owned by the family of one of their murderers. In a cemetery in Meridian, MS, James Chaney’s headstone is supported by a steel frame to protect it from vandalism.

This wasn’t just a history lesson, or a display of the troubling particularities of the South. Throughout the trip, I kept feeling like this wasn’t even history. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were working to register African-Americans to vote. Today, those seeking to marginalize Black voters advance voting policies designed to disenfranchise African-Americans and other people of color. The KKK may not be coordinating with police (though you can still find Klansmen meeting in a local diner), but the ideology of anti-blackness is at work every time a police officer goes free after killing an unarmed Black person. In Memphis in 1968, Black sanitation workers marched for better labor conditions bearing signs stating “I Am A Man.” Today, the simple notion that Black lives matter gets twisted into a radical threat to justify political agendas that devalue Black lives. We passed Parchman Prison, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, infamous for its brutal convict leasing practices, and where John Lewis and many other Freedom Riders were imprisoned. Today, a state government website proudly notes the thousands of hours of “free offender labor” that Parchman prisoners provide. It’s not unique.

American historical narratives are often flattened, reduced, and burnished. We celebrate a few specific individuals, forget the rest, and think that we live in a time period unlike any other. Throughout this trip, we heard from individuals and stood in the places where they put their bodies on the line to fight for freedom in the face of imminent physical danger. Many people are still here sharing their stories about that fight. That means many of those who threatened and beat them are still here too. What this trip made painfully clear to me was that, in the fight for racial justice, we cannot fall into the trap of thinking that history is past.