For 72 hours, I had the pleasure of traveling between Florida, Alabama and Georgia. It was 1,217 miles of purposeful driving, reflecting, soul searching, redemption and release. The purpose of our road trip was to retrace the steps of my father, Dick Gregory, and to speak with many of his Civil Rights friends and colleagues.
I traveled all over the world with my father, we had a unique bond. My father was a wildly successful, transformative comedian and a Civil Rights legend. Despite generational sacrifice, he so frequently expressed personal disappointment for not doing more. He felt far too many activists were abandoned and forgotten—forgotten soldiers. The age demographic of those activists is now at a point that we are losing them at an alarming rate. My charter is to find a way to help, comfort and thank them while gathering and championing their sacrifice and stories.
In activism, just like entertainment, there are lists. We all know the A listers of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of them are household names. My father always did an incredible job of paying homage to all of the lists: B list, C list, D list. Movements require the masses and the masses joined the leaders and made unimaginable sacrifices. Many today can’t imagine the totality of what it took to stand up and demand equality. Since my father’s passing, I have felt more like a medium than a grieving son. I was given marching orders, those orders were simple. Thank and protect the leaders, the supporters and the nameless. Gather their stories, protect their stories and share their stories with the world. Promote the true vision of global humanity and work with others to start the redemption and release process for generations who endured inhumane treatment, inhumane laws and inhumane policies. Joy commeth in the morning. Morning requires the sun to rise, and for the sun to rise it must first set. I want to set in motion a pathway for redemption and release for all of humanity.
In Montgomery, Alabama, our first visit was to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, informally known as the National Lynching Memorial. The memorial is set on majestic acreage, adjacent to downtown, not far from slave auction houses where many of the 12 million African slaves, and later their children, were bought and sold. On this peaceful, grass-covered, gently sloping hill sits a spiritual cemetery—a marker, if you will, for horrifying acts of evil and savagery so repulsive it defies words and understanding. As blacks began to experience some semblance of freedom and hope, whites became outraged and refused to conform. “Racial Terror Lynchings emerged as the primary tool to enforce racial hierarchy and oppression.“
The memorial is breathtakingly beautiful, too beautiful for the viciousness that led to the horrific death of the human beings it is there to memorialize. Upon entering, you walk past dramatic metal sculptures circled and connected in neck chains. These metal sculptures of African slaves had facial expressions of pure agony and fresh whip marks. The rust from the chains discolored the metal and took on the appearance of blood stains. Difficult to look at, you almost want to quickly get past it and begin to ascend the slope that almost feels like you’re getting away from it. The walk up this hill and the awe-inspiring beauty of its surroundings gives way to a sense of comfort, but truthfully this walk is like a walkable timeline from our ancestors’ arrival here as slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries to 1877 when federal Reconstruction troops were suddenly withdrawn leaving blacks to fend for themselves. As you turn the corner, you are greeted by a contemporary, concrete, wood and steel large memorial structure. Large metal poles hang from the ceiling and connect to large metal boxes that dangle before your eyes, rigid but frail. These boxes represent the thousands of black men, women and children who were brutally lynched and the metal poles represent the lynching rope. Truthfully, it is too beautiful for the atrocities it represents. But memorials are not meant to depict horrendous acts, they are there to pay tribute and homage to the victims. This memorial is a reminder to humanity, a reminder of how primitive and brutal humans can become when they lose their humanity. The memorial is impactful and excellently designed. Black folks and white folks peacefully walk, observe and reflect side by side. In this very same county generations ago, their white ancestors savagely killed black men, women and children as white men, women and children looked on and cheered and celebrated. I sit for awhile to soak in both the horrification and the awkward beauty. I sit and discretely stare at the white families taking in the atrocities of their ancestors. I’m suddenly struck by the reality that this memorial must be difficult for them. They look confused and ashamed of the beautifully depicted savagery. The design is so beautiful it draws them in, and once in they find themselves surrounded by the death and destruction that just a few generations ago their ancestors were responsible for. I sat there feeling like a tower of resilience, an indicator of black endurance. A proud, black, decent, humane being that felt equally disgust, rage and sympathy for a mentality so frail and fearful it needed state-sponsored terrorism to cope. At that point, my concern for the white visitors there experiencing the memorial ended. I was consumed with the black journey. I meditated and allowed my energy to apologize for what all of the black people memorialized there had to endure. I felt ashamed and saddened for humanity. How do we begin to heal? What is our path forward? Despite the memorial’s name, I felt no justice, no peace, no silver lining. The emptiness I departed with only added to my resolve to pay global homage and blaze a path forward with tools, understanding and resources to assist all of those dealing with and processing injustice.
I am incredibly thankful for this memorial. It is a must visit, a must experience, a marker and a reminder. As Americans, we are better than this. I smile thinking that despite best efforts to annihilate it black excellence persevered. To acknowledge black excellence is not to imply that we cornered the market on excellence. All walks of life, races, religions and creeds have the potential for excellence and have certainly expressed it. In celebrating black excellence we’re just acknowledging how far African Americans have come from an atrocious era in American history.
Until next time, stay focused and stay the course.
Learn more about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice: