My country’s failure to acknowledge its history of theft, violence, and racial subjugation throughout its existence leaves a formidable challenge for my generation. With each passing year, truths remain in the minds of fewer and fewer individuals while shallow and incomplete narratives continue to get produced in our history textbooks and etched into our built environment. We have a long and significant history of hiding from the truth in my country. For those such as myself, the individuals for whom the status quo works quite well, reexamining history in search of truth seems both terrifying and unnecessary. It may force us to pay for crimes we feel we did not commit and it may require spending significant time looking back at attitudes toward race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation that we believe are progressing naturally by aid of time’s invisible hand. We believe our energies are better spent engaging in social entrepreneurship, promoting community economic development, and investing in technological innovation in search of creative ways to bring the historically marginalized into our new, globalized economy.
The question then for my generation is: so what?
The John Lewis Fellowship offered me a special opportunity to take part in a civil rights tour of the City of Atlanta. Much of the tour, led by a former driver of Martin Luther King Jr.’s family, highlighted the importance of “Sweet Auburn” Avenue, once a hub of African-American business and community life and the home of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headquarters during the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the Fellowship, we heard from many speakers who reemphasized the importance of this street as a symbol of African American heritage, organizing, and accomplishments in the City of Atlanta. However, a stroll down Auburn Avenue today falls short of revealing the street’s legacy. The historic SCLC headquarters is left vacant and unpreserved. The Butler Street YMCA, which housed the first eight African American police officers in Atlanta during a time when they were not allowed into other police stations, has closed. The bar where civil rights leaders socialized is boarded up and decaying without even as much as a plaque noting its former existence. As the National Park Service’s website states,
Sweet Auburn [Avenue] was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. However, like so many other inner city neighborhoods, Sweet Auburn fell victim to lack of investment, crime and abandonment, compounded by highway construction that split it in two. (1)
What is to come of the block is unclear. In the case of increased funds and political will, historic preservation efforts may succeed, although the highway construction means some damage is likely irreparable. Otherwise, like many neighborhoods adjacent to the new Atlanta Beltline, the neighborhood may gentrify, erasing much of its history for good. The question then for my generation is: so what?
Despite the small plaque signifying the historic significance of Prince Hall Masonic Building as the former headquarters of the Southern Leadership Christian Conference (SCLC) during the Civil Rights Movement, the building has yet to be designated as a National Historic Landmark. Across the street from Prince Hall Masonic Building sits a vacant building with boarded up windows. Tom Houck, former driver for the Martin Luther King Jr.’s family, described it as a bar where activists in the Civil Rights Movement used to shoot pool and socialize.
Bryan Stevenson, Director of the Equal Justice Initiative’s recollection of the reactions he received when giving a lecture on the American death penalty to German students is so powerful. The death penalty could never happen in Germany, the German citizens were quite sure. The memory of the Holocaust was far too ingrained in the minds of German citizens. Government-sanctioned killings would be “unconscionable.” Stevenson also notes that, during his visit to Germany, he could not walk more than 100 meters without seeing a marker on a stone or a monument to designate the places where Jewish families were abducted from their homes and taken to concentration camps. (2) To be sure, significant differences exist between Germany post-World War II, where very few Jews remained, and America post-Civil War; however, one can’t help but note the stark differences between the ways the two countries came to terms with their vicious pasts. Just outside Atlanta, Stone Mountain Park, a historic site and tourist attraction, continues to boast the confederate flag alongside artwork glorifying Confederate soldiers for their fight to uphold chattel slavery.
At Stone Mountain National Park, Confederate flags line the trail up the country’s largest exposed granite rock. Engraved into the rock are three prominent Confederate soldiers.
My work in civil and human rights began when I was a freshman in college and was forced to come to terms with the privileges I inherited from my university’s expansion in West Philadelphia as part of the city’s ambitious plan for “urban renewal.” Using federal funds, the city government seized the land where (mostly poor) black families lived, bulldozed their homes, and handed the land over to my university—an effort to combat “blight.” Reflecting on the “urban renewal” campaigns of the 1950s and 60s, a New York Times article states,
During that era, four units of low-income housing were destroyed for every one new unit that was built. And more than two-thirds of the displaced were black or Hispanic, a pattern that was clear by 1963 when the author James Baldwin observed that urban renewal “means Negro removal.” (3)
Fast forward more than sixty years to today, some African American families continue to fight efforts by local governments to seize their family homes through eminent domain while many others wait to get priced out of their neighborhoods as a result of publicly-subsidized development. Gentrification fits well into the narrative of the exploitation and disposability of black and brown bodies and their labor; however, when Donald Trump speaks of his urban agenda, perhaps the least controversial of his poorly-articulated plans for the country, he and most Americans recognize no such thing.
Adjacent to the noisy highway that now bisects Auburn Avenue sits vacant buildings that once housed shops and restaurants. Not far from the highway, the historic Butler Street YMCA has closed.
How many Americans, from any part of the country, can tell you about the history of redlining and racially restrictive covenants, and their significant contributions to the racial wealth divide that exists today? How many Americans know about the more than 2,000 African Americans elected to public office during the Reconstruction period before the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws, and threats by white employers and landlords decimated the African American vote? How many Americans fully grasp the abhorrent truths that contributed to the removal of Native Americans off the lands from which we now sustain and profit? While some may reduce the collective loss of historical memory to mere deficiencies in our educational system, the truth is so much more complex. The decay of Auburn Avenue is part of that truth. As Bryan Stevenson states, “There is no redemption without acknowledgement of sin. It’s not bad to repent. It’s cleansing. It’s necessary. It’s ultimately liberating to acknowledge where we were and where we want to go. We haven’t done that collectively.” (4) Indeed, rather than confront our history and acknowledge the ways that we continue to profit off the systematic exploitation of marginalized peoples, we reduce our history and our realities to “things of the past,” “necessary to eventually raise all boats,” or, perhaps most dangerous of all, to the idea that “some groups of humans are more evolved, or ‘more human,’ than others.”
While the means through which restorative justice may be undertaken in this country remain unclear, its urgency is more evident than ever.
As the most recent class of John Lewis Fellows, we were tasked with considering what “restorative justice,” a term contextualized through Germany’s actions to repent for its genocide and South Africa’s formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission post-apartheid, might mean in the context of the American South. While both historical examples leave much to be desired, they present frameworks for restorative justice that involve acknowledgement and reconciliation rather than suppression and punishment. While the means through which restorative justice may be undertaken in this country remain unclear, its urgency is more evident than ever. With restorative justice, we may have hesitated before allowing the City of Atlanta to turn the railroad tracks, built by enslaved and imprisoned peoples, over to private developers without a far more extensive democratic planning process. With restorative justice, we may have been more aware as to what was really going on when Donald Trump cried “voter fraud” and formed his Commission on Election Integrity. With restorative justice, we may recognize the importance of preserving neighborhoods, and the people and stories that give them life, such as we have failed to do on Auburn Avenue and in other gentrifying and “blighted” neighborhoods across the country. Truths would remain. Narratives would be reclaimed. Human dignity would begin to be restored.
- “Sweet Auburn Historic District,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/atlanta/aub.html
- 2 Bryan Stevenson, “We need to talk about injustice,” TED, https://www.ted.com/talks/bryan_stevenson_we_need_to_talk_about_an_injustice (February, 2012).
- Emily Badger, “Why Trump’s Use of the Words ‘Urban Renewal’ is Scary for Cities, New York Times, https://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/12/07/upshot/why-trumps-use-of-the-words-urban-renewal-is-scary-for-cities.html (December 7, 2016).
- Bryan Stevenson, “Why the opposite of Povery isn’t wealth, but justice,” The Ezra Klein Show, https://www.vox.com/2017/5/24/15675606/bryan-stevenson-confederacy-monuments-slavery-ezra-klein (May 24, 2017).