Our discussion series with Funders for Justice’s Field Advisors continues with Stephanie Guilloud, Co-Director of Project South. Stephanie asks us, "If you could stop a lynching today, would you?" Guilloud describes the grand opening of the Legacy Museum and Lynching Memorial and how the museum can be “a tool and weapon of truth in our long-term struggle to defeat white supremacy and win freedom and justice for us all."
If you could stop a lynching today, would you?
“Thank you for taking our case,” Anna Deavere Smith told the 2,000 person crowd at the Grand Opening of the Legacy Museum and Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama on April 26, 2018. Bryan Stevenson, the visionary lawyer and leader of Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), had just told a heart-wrenching story about a phone call from an intellectually disabled client who had found out he would be executed that day. The man told Bryan, who had taken the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, “Thank you for trying to save my life. Thank you for taking my case.”
Anna Deavere Smith, the incredible artist and playwright, referenced the story Bryan told to reflect the power and intimacy of what was happening. Bryan Stevenson and EJI’s intervention in a corrupted and manipulative history is an act to save our lives. They built a museum and memorial that is not trapped in a faded chronicle of past events but is alive with the injustices and racial terror that Black people face every day in prisons, jails, and in public life. The sites assert that none of us can move forward without reckoning with the truth.
We all need to be part of it. Because we already are a part of this reality, this U.S. history, this present-time racist violence. In our streets, at our borders, in the courts, and in our daily lives. We are a part of it, and if we can strengthen our collective body by truly understanding the past terrors and current horrors of white supremacy, we may be able to save ourselves.
What is it?
On the foundation of a slave warehouse in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, Equal Justice Initiative created a legacy museum that tracks the trans-Atlantic slave trade to today’s incarceration epidemic. In a harrowing parallel, digital holograms of enslaved people speak and sing from behind bars in one part of the center and in other parts, digital holograms of incarcerated people speak from behind glass. You lift the receiver to hear them speak as if you were visiting them in prison. The space is a beautiful and devastating design. The memorial is an outside space where you feel the anguish of enslavement, read the names of people lynched, and experience something heavy and freeing at the same time. These are not static museums dedicated to exposing past injustices, these are dynamic spaces dedicated to engaging truth.
The Lynching Memorial and Legacy Museum are proving the argument without any apology or justification that slavery did not end in 1865.
How did they do it?
Slow, steady, methodical research. They coordinated multiple projects of painfully vivid histories of over 4,000 lynchings from 1877-1950. They released reports, they produced documentaries and videos, and they built these spaces. All while they continued to practice law and take on clients facing the death penalty and extreme punishment in Alabama and other parts of the South.
They got big investments. Google partnered to make this thing happen and to make it stunning. An interactive touchscreen map is an innovation in design, data, and emotional delivery. You can stand in one place and see the exact number of known lynchings in any given county in the U.S. with their names listed on the side of the screen. It is an incredible demonstration of the breadth and depth of the decades of terror. It cannot be dismissed and does not need to be justified.
What does it mean?
One thing it means is that Montgomery will be changed forever. The Montgomery Advertiser, the only newspaper in town, printed an editorial the week of the opening that states in one simple opening line, “We were wrong.” This long-time white institution, my grandfather’s newspaper, claimed responsibility for the press’s complicity in racist violence. For a Southern capital’s newspaper to claim institutional culpability in how violence and racism led to brutal deaths is significant in today’s hostile political climate.
These spaces assert “we will not be erased” – not from history and not from today – without making any inch of the truth more palatable. Montgomery is the perfect site to hold this transformative process. I hope that this will be a site of pilgrimage, not to understand the Civil Rights Movement as a moment in the past but as a way to become more human and more dedicated to our collective fight for freedom.
James Baldwin was quoted throughout the opening week’s events, “History is not the past. It is the present.”
I traveled to my mother’s hometown with eight folks from Project South, some who were born after I graduated from high school and one who had lived through both the racist violence in 1960s Atlanta and had been incarcerated for a year and a half for writing a bad check. We experienced a Montgomery that is growing, that is still a heady mix of poor and rich, that is still pointing people to the tours of the Jefferson Davis’ White House, the former seat of the Confederacy. We also experienced the power of a movement moment when hundreds of local volunteers, Black and white, signed up to support this historic opening. Montgomery natives pointed us to good local restaurants and kept a massive event from feeling like a conference and more like a shared experience, rooted in the same city that launched the Bus Boycott and received the marchers from Selma. We were all proud to be part of a new historical moment in this city.
Rev. William Barber’s eloquent history lesson reminded us that lynchings happened in the U.S. South to reverse the gains of Reconstruction after the Civil War and to prevent Black political participation. In the U.S. South today, we are experiencing a significant attack that has all the markings of a legal lynching in the 21st century.
Pastor Kenneth Glasgow is facing capital murder charges in Dothan, Alabama based on an Alabama law that allows the state to charge anyone near a crime to be fully responsible for that crime. He is innocent. The states attorney is not even making a case that he killed the woman who lost her life in the incident that happened on March 26, 2018. (Read more about the case in an excellent article published in The Root)
Project South has worked with Pastor Glasgow and The Ordinary People Society (TOPS) for over 15 years. Pastor Glasgow is one of the many Alabama Black leaders who built the infrastructure and the momentum for the victory in the Special Elections for U.S. Senate in December by registering formerly and currently incarcerated people to vote. In 2017, Pastor Glasgow stood in a picture with the Governor of Alabama while the governor signed a piece of legislation that is more progressive than 47 states in the U.S., a piece of legislation that was the result of 15 years of organizing. The law expands access to the vote by over 200,000 people by allowing incarcerated people, with convictions that fall outside of certain felonies, in the state of Alabama to register and vote absentee (Maine and Vermont are the only other states that allow currently convicted and incarcerated people to vote). In 2018, not even four months from the victory that proved the power of Black political participation, Pastor Glasgow is facing charges that carry the death penalty or at best, a life sentence.
If we could stop a lynching today, would we?
Movement leaders, his family, pastors all over the state, and local families who have been impacted by the work of TOPS have come together to protect and defend Pastor Glasgow. He is out on bond (which was a victory, as most capital charges do not get bonded out) and waiting for a Grand Jury trial which will indict, dismiss, or lessen the charges. If indicted, we go on to a trial jury. We’re in for a long haul.
And meanwhile the Alabama primaries happened on June 5. Pastor Glasgow does not rest. He worked with coordinators and captains inside the jail where they kept him for two weeks, and they have registered over 800 people. He is continuing the #Free2Vote work across the state, and organizers and pastors are making sure that everyone who can vote in Alabama is registered and ready.
What Project South and the Southern Movement Assembly knows is that an attack on any one of us is an attack on all of us. We are proud of our movements that have not flinched in the face of this intimidation and attempt to isolate Pastor Glasgow. We are stronger together, and we will stop this legal lynching. We are bolstered by our ancestors’ courage and the work of the Equal Justice Initiative to build something so powerful and affirming.
I was proud to be with a delegation from Project South and the Georgia Citizens’ Coalition on Hunger to the EJI Lynching Memorial and National Museum for Peace & Justice. We were not passive observers but actors in the present moment. We did a public action to engage people about Pastor Glasgow’s case, and we will be bringing the youth members of Project South’s annual Septima Clark Community Power Institute back to Montgomery to continue engaging the Lynching Memorial and Legacy Museum as a tool and weapon of truth in our long-term struggle to defeat white supremacy and win freedom and justice for us all.
Stephanie Guilloud is the Co-Director at Project South: Institute for the Elimination of Poverty & Genocide based in Atlanta, Georgia.
Stephanie Guilloud is originally from Houston, Texas with roots in Alabama. Stephanie is an organizer with 17 years of experience and leadership in global justice work and community organizing. At Project South, Stephanie works closely with Southeast regional organizing projects, the Southern Movement Assembly, and membership programs. Stephanie worked as the National Co-Chair of the Peoples Movement Assembly Working Group of the US Social Forum from 2008-2013. She served on the board of Southerners On New Ground (SONG), a multiracial queer organization, from 2005-2014. Stephanie is the editor of two anthologies: Through the Eyes of the Judged; Autobiographical Sketches from Incarcerated Young Men and Voices from the WTO; First-person Narratives from the People who Shut Down the World Trade Organization.
Learn more about the Funders for Justice Field Advisors.