Episcopal bishops describe ‘powerful, challenging’ racial justice pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama

By David Paulsen
Posted Mar 10, 2023
National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Hanging columns memorialize the thousands of lynching victims at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo: John Harvey Taylor, via Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] The House of Bishops took a break from its weeklong retreat at the Diocese of Alabama’s Camp McDowell on March 9 and made a pilgrimage to racial justice sites in the city of Montgomery, the state’s capital and a key battleground in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

The bishops’ trip focused on two sites developed by the Equal Justice Initiative, the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The museum examines the full 400-year scope of American systems of racist oppression, from the colonial era’s chattel slavery through Jim Crow segregation and today’s problem of mass incarceration. The memorial draws attention to thousands of lynching victims during the post-Civil War period.

Bryan Stevenson, left, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke to the House of Bishops on March 9 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Here he poses for a photo with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Photo: The Episcopal Church

The bishops’ pilgrimage followed in the footsteps of the church’s Executive Council, which visited some of the same sites during its October 2019 meeting in Montgomery. During both trips, Episcopal leaders heard from Bryan Stevenson, the civil rights attorney who founded the Equal Justice Initiative and spearheaded the creation of the museum and memorial, which opened in 2018. On March 9, Stevenson spoke to the bishops during a stop at St. John’s Episcopal Church in downtown Montgomery.

“We went to Montgomery not as tourists to consume, but as pilgrims to pray,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in a written statement to Episcopal News Service. “We went on pilgrimage to holy places to remember those enslaved and abused in the institution of chattel slavery – and the martyrs and witnesses who labored for a society in which there is ‘liberty and justice for all.’ … We went as pilgrims following Jesus and his way of love.”

General Convention has identified racial reconciliation as one of the church’s top three priorities since Curry’s election in 2015. The other two are evangelism and creation care. Numerous dioceses and congregations have organized their own racial justice pilgrimages to Montgomery in recent years, and some have worked with the Equal Justice Initiative to memorialize lynching victims in their communities.

A central premise of the Legacy Museum is that a false narrative of racial inferiority was used to justify the genocide perpetrated on Native Americans and enslavement of Africans and their descendants, a narrative meant to ease white Americans’ feelings of guilt. “That ideology has endured beyond the formal abolition of American slavery,” according to one of the exhibits at the museum.

That narrative endured through the post-Reconstruction rise of lynchings – or, as the Legacy Museum describes them, “racial terror lynchings.” The Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4,000 lynchings across 12 Southern states, as well as several hundred more such attacks in other states including in the North, that occurred from 1877 to 1950.

Western North Carolina Bishop José McLoughlin described the day in a Facebook post as a “powerful pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama, today with my brother and sister bishops of the Episcopal Church.”

Connecticut Bishop Jeffrey Mello said Stevenson’s words to the bishops were “prophetic” on this “powerful and challenging day.”

Vermont Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown, in a March 10 phone interview with ENS, said she was still processing the experience and its profound effect on her, as a descendant of both slaves and slaveowners.

“I very intentionally went into the museum, the Legacy Museum, with an awareness of brining my family with me, my parents, my grandparents, my enslaved ancestors and even slave-owning ancestors,” she said. It was an overwhelming experience, one that she is continuing to discuss with her fellow bishops.

“At a certain point, I was just full, from all of the information along with just the emotion of contemplation, all that has come to bear in making us the country that we are, the church that we are, and just how it’s so tangled,” she said.

At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, MacVean-Brown and the other bishops toured the grounds until their visit was cut short by a rainstorm and lightning.

The memorial is intended to honor all of the more than 4,000 lynching victims in the country, some named and some whose identity is unknown. On a hill overlooking downtown Montgomery, a series of steel columns hang in rows around a green square. Each column represents a county where the Equal Justice Initiative has confirmed at least one lynching occurred. The victims are listed on the columns.

“Terror lynchings were horrific acts of violence whose perpetrators were never held accountable. Indeed, some public spectacle lynchings were attended by the entire white community and conducted as celebratory acts of racial control and domination,” the Equal Justice Initiative’s research report “Lynching in America” says.

As visitors to the memorial begin passing between the columns, they are able to examine them at eye level. But as they proceed, they follow a path downward, so that the columns farther along the path are suspended higher and higher overhead – invoking the sight of victims hanging dead.

The Equal Justice Initiative also created duplicate columns for each of the more than 800 counties and laid them on the grounds of the memorial, inviting each county to claim and display its column as an act of confronting, acknowledging and remembering its history.

“It is hard to have any words in the wake of such profound witness to the evil of white supremacy,” the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe, bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania and bishop provisional of Western New York, told ENS on March 10 in a written statement. “We have so much work to do to dismantle the systems that keep our church beholden to institutional racism and injustice. But as Bryan Stevenson reminds us, doing that work with mercy and justice will set us all free.”

While the bishops were on board the three buses that ushered them to the different sites in Montgomery, they occasionally followed a liturgy that had been drafted specifically for this pilgrimage by Missouri Bishop Deon Johnson.

Afterward, Johnson posted photos of the visit to Facebook, including a closeup of a display remembering a Missouri lynching victim, Porter Carson, who was killed in 1879 after being accused of “inappropriate conduct with a white woman.”

“These do we remember and for them our souls weep,” Johnson said on Facebook. “We have work to do!”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.