News & Views

The Day After: Reflections About the Refugees that We Created

The current anti-immigrant rhetoric is more than dismaying. It is a loud and clear tolling of the white supremacy bell. And it should bring terror and trauma to all of our hearts because it is a clear and ever present reminder of how far we can descend if we don’t call it out and reverse course.

Yesterday, thanks to the support of a generous anonymous donor, most of the staff of HIAS Pennsylvania visited the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

It was hard. Heart-wrenching. Painful. Infuriating. Necessary.

In a tight space, intentionally created on the site of a former slave warehouse where things were dark, claustrophobic and frightening, we were herded through a dark, claustrophobic and frightening entrance. We listened to anguished stories of slaves waiting to be purchased. We saw violent scenes of ripping families apart, degrading human beings with chains and collars, scenes of violence and blood.

Then we entered a more open, brightly lit space, where the numbers were overwhelming:

  • 12 million people purchased
  • 2 million people dead on the journey from homeland to the U.S. to be sold
  • 4,000 documented lynchings and thousands more suspected. Lynchings, burnings and brutalizations that were public, published, photographed and took place on courthouse lawns.
  • Countless more brutal beatings, burnings, rapes.

An entire group of people systematically brutalized and re-created by American whites into non-people, into objects of scorn and hate. All done by persons who professed belief in equality and freedom from oppression. And while owning a person was ultimately forbidden, legal terrorization of a whole group of persons continued and continues.

Alabama’s constitution still permits segregation. Attempts to remove those laws in 2005 and 2012 – which are unenforceable under federal law anyway – were unsuccessful.

A 2011 photograph showed convicts who were “leased” to landowners and businesses.

A quote from one of the architects of the “War on Drugs” admitted, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities… Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The evolution of slavery, from bondage to brutalization to mass incarceration is clear and stark. And it was constructed through the myth of white superiority – not just generally, but over and over again with continuous references to black criminals, black rapists, black ignorance, black laziness.

Laziness. Let’s reflect on that for a moment. The black participants in the Montgomery bus boycott walked between 8 and 15 miles a day for over a year to get to and from their jobs and schools and grocery stores just so they could be treated equally.

Ignorance. For centuries it was a crime to teach a black person to read and write English. And yet, as early as the 1760’s, Benjamin Banneker, African American astronomer, managed to not only educate himself but to make calculations to predict solar and lunar eclipses. Phyllis Wheatley became a published poet. Norbert Rilleaux was an inventor and engineer who invented an energy-efficient means for evaporating water. Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Frances Harper, Harriet Wilson, Elijah McCoy and on and on it goes. These are not merely learned and accomplished persons. These are learned and accomplished giants whose achievements were made in the midst of—and despite—violent and brutal oppression.

Rapists and criminals. Here are the crimes: using inappropriate language with a white woman (David Walker, lynched along with his wife and four children in 1908), suing the white man who killed his cow (Jon Stoner, lynched in 1909), reprimanding white children who threw rocks at her (Elizabeth Lawrence, lynched in 1933), working to organize a union among sharecroppers (Ed Bracy, G. Smith Watkins and Jim Press, lynched in 1935), registering black voters (Elbert Williams, lynched in 1940), defending himself from a home invader (Dominic Culpeper, sentenced to life without parole when he was 14 years old) forced by a gang to participate in a robbery and accepting responsibility for his part in it by turning himself into police (Ian Manuel, sentenced to life without parole at age 13). And on and on.

So, here are my take aways –

  • Reckoning with our past is more than overdue, it’s necessary to fix the present, which remains permeated by the poisonous myth of white superiority. Visiting the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a critical first step in that reckoning. Our President, Governors, Legislators, Judges and teachers must go immediately. The rest of America must go as soon as possible.
  • We cannot continue to call ourselves a nation of laws unless we acknowledge how we abandoned and continue to abandon our own laws in their application to African Americans. This is critical. The American dream is founded upon the principal that all are created equal under the law and yet this is not the case. And our failures are not occasional and unavoidable in a vast and expensive system that is bound to make some mistakes. Our failures are intentional; we created a system designed to fail the rights of African Americans. When African Americans claimed their legal rights during the civil rights movement, the power structure built upon the lies and brutalization that were trumpeted for centuries to create new forms of oppression.
  • All of our modern day enjoyments – from the railroad to Amazon to restaurants and technology – were built on the backs of slaves and exploited dark-skinned minorities all of whom could be fit neatly into the myth of white superiority so that the oppression could continue. We are all complicit. We must all take responsibility. We must all find a way to rebuild our nation on a foundation of true human equality.
  • It is because of this legacy and the resilience of the African American refugees who escaped the terror and brutalization but continue to live with the discriminatory effects of the evolution of slavery and white supremacy that the current anti-immigrant rhetoric is more than dismaying. It is a loud and clear tolling of the white supremacy bell. And it should bring terror and trauma to all of our hearts because it is a clear and ever present reminder of how far we can descend if we don’t call it out and reverse course.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is somber and sad. It recognizes the lives and souls that were lost. It fills us with shame for our human failings – our hypocrisy, our brutality, our sadistic, grasping natures that clearly, it seems, will do anything for power.

But these words are emblazoned at the depths of the memorial:


Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Justice is a constant struggle. Let us commit, here and now, to restoring the rule of law for those who have been abandoned by it.