If the deck at our house were a little taller, we’d be able to see the top of the North Highlands Dam from it, just a few hundred yards away as the crow flies, but through an impenetrable combination of privet and steep embankment on foot.
The dam stands near the top of Georgia’s fall line, where the last, lowliest rocky piedmont from the Blue Ridge Mountains tumbles into the flats of the Georgia plains. The dam’s turbines first started churning and providing electric juice for the Bibb Mill in 1900. And near the dam — in fact, most probably on its very site — was a bluff that locals called Lovers Leap. Because of course they did.
That same year, on June 8, a mob grabbed a black man who was being carted to the famous Columbus Stockade1. They took him, already bound, and tossed him off Lovers Leap. He survived the 37-foot drop, at least until they riddled him with gunshots.
“The last time he came up for air, a round from a Winchester entered his skull behind his ear,” wrote David Rose for his book “The Big Eddy Club” (as excerpted in Vanity Fair in 2007). The 19-year-old victim, Simon Adams, was likely not innocent. He’d allegedly been caught breaking into his boss’s house when apprehended. But there’s shade to be shared: The bailiff transporting Adams must have broadcast his intentions to whomever formed the mob. He drove the prisoner toward town not on the direct road, but on the much quieter side street near the bluff, where the posse waited for its ambush.
Last week, a new memorial to lynching victims opened in Montgomery, Alabama. Coffin-sized metal boxes hang like colonnades, one for each county that has documented victims of United States lynchings. Simon’s is one of five names on Muscogee County’s hanging metal box.
When you drive 77 miles to such a memorial only to learn that one of its victims was murdered in almost literally your backyard, it affects you.
Through some fluke, I knew nothing about the somber new monument — the National Memorial for Peace and Justice — until the day before its grand opening on a Thursday, when I stumbled on a story in the Washington Post. (Surely my local paper must have had coverage before this, though a search of its website shows no results.) When we saw the Equal Justice Initiative was hosting a Thursday-Friday conference on social justice concurrent with the grand opening, Jenn and I immediately tried to get tickets. All that was left were overflow tickets, to watch sessions via giant monitors in an adjacent room to the speakers. We were still in for Friday.
Our journey to this point was not 77 miles to Montgomery. It’s been years coming, from when we started thinking about organic food, to when we started thinking about locally-sourced food, to when we started thinking about reducing our carbon footprint in other ways, to when we started thinking about living a life that’s less consumer-driven, to when we started thinking about growing our own food, to when we actually ripped out our azaleas and planted blueberries, elderberries, persimmons, pineapple guava, blackberries, pear trees and grapes in our yard.
And from there to exploring why other people don’t make similar choices. Why people on food stamps buy soda, and why they eat fried chicken from a convenience store instead of buying fresh food at a grocery store.
When you begin to understand those decisions instead of just condemning them, you want to help. More on that in a minute.
Al Gore presented a session on environmental justice Friday afternoon, and I can’t express enough our excitement to be called from overflow into the main auditorium for that session. “He’s showing the slides,” Jenn squealed. “The slides!”
It was the session that best helps me connect these seemingly disparate dots between century-old lynchings and the need for more organic food, for instance. Gore quoted Pope Francis several times, including this gem: “The gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.”
And if lynchings were the Reconstruction’s continuance of oppression, post-slavery (spoiler: they were) then it’s not a big step for the open-minded to see that environmental injustice continues this oppression. It finds its victims in the poor counties and the derelict parts of town. The brownfields and Superfund sites are by the housing projects, not by the historic districts. And the poor are disproportionately not white people.
But the marginalized can be any race. Any color can be poor. Anyone can be treated unfairly because of a hairstyle or a religious belief (or lack thereof).
“In this country, we have so much common pain, but we’ve lost our sense of common purpose,” said New Jersey senator Cory Booker in a session on activism and identity. Joining him in that session was rapper Common and Brittany Packnett, who co-founded Campaign Zero, the post-Ferguson reform group. Packnett and Booker were the strongest voices Friday for lifting our collective ass off of our hands.2
“I owe it to [my descendants] to plant a seed that will create shade that someone can go and sit in,” Packnett said.
That seed can be as simple as casting a ballot, Booker said, who expressed frustration with the low voter turnout that he feels led to the reelection of Chris Christie, the sun-bathing Jersey governor who, for a time, enjoyed the lowest approval rating of any such leader in the States.
“It is a profoundly political action to do nothing,” Booker said.
I realized years ago that no one’s going to tell you exactly what it is that you need to do to make the world a better, more just place. There are a thousand things you can do, beginning with opening your eyes to the possibility that you might be getting different treatment from someone — for good or ill — for a reason that’s out of your control.
That said, here are some of the things Jenn and I hope to do in the coming months. Some of these were prompted by our visit to the memorial, and some have been in the works for months:
- Get more and better food to people who need it. With the help of a local medical provider, MercyMed, Jenn is creating a new farmers market near our house, right in MercyMed’s parking lot. At least three local farms have committed to providing their fresh veg for sale both to people who can walk to it from the North Highlands food desert and to people commuting from downtown. Thanks to Georgia Organics’ Food Oasis and Wholesome Wave Georgia, shoppers who are on SNAP — that’s what us old-timers call “food stamps” — can get double their money’s worth of fresh food. (That market, for interested Columbusites, is 4-6 p.m. 1st and 3rd Wednesdays, beginning June 6. Y’all come.)
- Continue to improve our public orchard. The Anthony Street Orchard is the little plot of public land we were able to dot with blueberries, pears, persimmons and blackberries. It’s looking great in Year Two. But we’re still working on getting clover to take over for the high-maintenance grassy weeds. The footpaths have been overtaken by groundcover. And we greatly want to beautify the place with a nicer fence and some public art. These things should help draw people to the park, where the ripe fruit will entice them to eat something fresh off the vine or branch.
- Never forget Simon Adams. Or Jesse Slayton and William Miles (both hung here on June 1, 1896). Or T.Z. McElhenny (Aug. 13, 1912). Or Joe Lockhart (Oct. 30, 1926). They weren’t all in my back yard. But they might have been in yours.
I shouldn’t need to say any more about the importance of that third point. But considering a large portion of the country thinks that football players kneeling during the national anthem was somehow a disrespectful act, I feel like I need to say that memorializing lynching victims is not an attempt to keep open a terrible old wound. In fact, it’s the opposite; a way for the aggrieved and the descendants of the aggressors to move on. It’s important for the same reason that many people need a funeral to put a loved one to rest, even though that person left the Earth days before being put into it. A funeral provides tangible closure. Hopefully.
And the designers of the new memorial have created a novel way to help people all over the land never forget, even if they never go to Montgomery. They created duplicate funerary boxes for each county, engraved with the same names. They hope each county will adopt theirs and move it to an appropriate place on the soil of the county where the crime occurred all those years ago.
Surely there’s an appropriate place to display this portion of the monument in Columbus, and I plan to seek it out and push for those five names to come home.
And surely there’s an appropriate place for the box that belongs to your county, too.
1 Point of fact: The actual stockade, as referenced in the song by Darby/Tarleton wouldn’t be constructed for seven more years. Poetic license and junk. Also, here’s a really cool performance of that song featuring a couple of locals standing in the stockade’s shade. And the sexy, sexy back of my head. (You can click through to the YouTube page to read the full article from 2007 in the notes):
2 Common’s freestyle breakdown was pretty smash, too, though.