But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! -Amos 5:24
I was seven years old when the Civil Rights Memorial was dedicated. Other than Martin Luther King, Jr., the other forty names mentioned were not in my textbooks. I am not surprised when people believe that displaying the Confederate flag is merely heritage. This is what our schooling taught us. Needless to say, I am more than appreciative of those teachers risking the wrath of parents. It is not that I wish I had learned the story of every martyr. Children are resilient, but atrocities are painful truths to be digested cautiously. That being said, I do prefer that I had learned more than MLK’s name, because he didn’t work alone. Ironically, Maya Lin designed the memorial with Amos 5:24 in mind, following in the steps of MLK himself, yet I didn’t know that King was referencing the bible. I have gone to church as long as I can remember, but MLK was not discussed in church other than obligatory mentions near his birthday. In an effort to protect the status quo, adults surrounding me shared the socially acceptable details or information I’d see on the covers of books or newspapers. There were brave adults who answered my questions truthfully, giving me books like Parting the Waters or requiring Amistad be watched in class, but for the most part, the vast amount of violence and death during the Civil Rights Movement was not addressed. When I see a Confederate flag flying on the back of trucks being driven by teenagers, I recognize that, like me years ago, they may not know that using heritage as your reasoning is unacceptable and inexcusable. Virgil Lamar Ware was murdered by teenagers with a gun and a Confederate flag. They purchased it from the National States’ Rights Party, known for white supremacy, and drove with it, flying from their motorbike, into Virgil’s neighborhood with the intention of frightening people of color. Their version of “frightening” was fatal. Like Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo, the killers suffered little punishment. They went on to live their lives while Virgil’s body was buried, unmarked, on the side of the road. For years, people passed, having no idea who they were driving by, until enough money was raised to give him a more appropriate burial and a true grave marker. The Confederate flag belongs in a museum, because it is part of history and history merits preservation. Children have been murdered in this flag’s wake, and this is not a heritage to flaunt. Preservation is very different from glorification. Though Virgil’s name is available for all to see on Lin’s piece, until we choose to say his name, tell his story, and be honest about the wrong done to him, we’re moving against the flow of the river of justice. I didn’t know his name until today, and now you do too.
I’ve written about how the murders of James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo impacted me and referenced Jimmie Lee Jackson in my post that spawned the former two entries. With time, I intend to learn the stories attached to the names of men and women who are gone, both glorified and preserved through Maya Lin’s work. I’ll share what I learn and maybe in so doing, I might, even minutely, succeed in assisting in the justice Amos prophesied about centuries ago. I can’t guarantee how quickly I’ll share with you, because this is hard. Learning about evil and what it can look like, realizing how prevalent it still is, acknowledging that Christians were both violent and brutal, are both violent and brutal—- it makes me ache in corners of my heart I didn’t know existed. My discomfort is nothing compared to the intense grief of those family members remaining who desperately miss those killed. The least I can do is affirm their stories and validate their history, the history that my textbooks kept secret.
If you’re up for some heavy reading, I recommend Parting the Waters, just as it was suggested to me. Parting the Waters is only the first book of a trilogy, following by Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge. All together, the trio covers history in the United States between 1954-1968, specifically focusing on the Civil Rights Movement. Amazon asks that I tell you that I earn from qualifying purchases and I ask that you purchase to donate if you don’t want to read yourself. Two-inch wide books on racism aren’t exactly bedtime reading, but there are always places to send books. Across the country, there are programs meant to provide people who are incarcerated with reading material. Virgil Ware was murdered in Birmingham, Alabama, so it seems only fitting that I share the Alabama Books to Prison Project. I firmly believe every person needs books, no matter the bars on their windows. Whether the world is afraid of you, or you are afraid of it, books give us all dignity.