MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Mike Tusken flew into Atlanta and drove to Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday intent on taking in the opening of a celebrated new national lynching memorial.
He's long been occupied by the Duluth Police Department's responsibility to the city's lynching tragedy in 1920, which decades later begat the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in downtown Duluth. Those black men - Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie - were taken by a mob from the Duluth jail after being fingered by police for what turned out to be false allegations by a white woman.
But upon entering the National Memorial for Peace and Justice on its opening day in the capital of Alabama, Tusken was suddenly preoccupied. First struck by a statue of chained slaves that greets visitors with a gut punch, the Duluth police chief said, "Boy, this is hard to look at."
And then the phone rang. It was another call about the refinery explosion encompassing Superior. He'd been taking the calls all morning regarding mutual aid from the Duluth police. He made a mobile office out of his rental car.
"Things like this happen and people expect the chief to be there," he said, the strain of being pulled in two directions in his voice. "I'll be back (Friday)."
The other Duluth visitors, a delegation of 34 people who bused to Montgomery, were fortunate enough to be able to send prayers home and carry on with what was a revelatory day. Rev. William Barber of North Carolina brought the house down with a daring oration on "modern day political lynching," a series of suppressive measures which he said is choking American democracy. Upon hearing it, Duluth East student Anna Huber gave a crack assessment of the five-day bus trip to that point.
"It's been overwhelming in a really good way," she said, "in a way that you want to be overwhelmed."
The convention center and area around the memorial buzzed with scores of people from around the country, including VIP guests such as former Vice President Al Gore and Rev. Jesse Jackson. The heavyweight event also reverberated through the synapses of the American social conscience.
"It blesses my heart that so many people back home who couldn't be here can stand with us through social media," said Stephanie Leggett of Katy, Texas.
But it was in the memorial itself where the tragic became magic. Perched atop a grassy knoll - blocks from the bustle of what is a pristine downtown - the memorial makes itself known as a piece of art which draws viewers in from far away for closer inspection. Upon entering, observers are further pulled by the hundreds of pillars which hang like bells, reminders of the dead which ring with the echoes of hate. There were up to 5,000 known victims of lynchings, mostly black people, and unreported numbers of others in what is generally regarded as 60 years of post-Civil War terror.
Past Duluth NAACP president Claudie Washington and his wife, Marion, stopped at the pillar which read "Adams County, Miss." They were both raised in the county seat of Natchez.
"I'm just devastated by the amount of violence that has been inflicted on people's lives - the injustice of it all," Washington said.
The lynching memorial guides its visitors on a wooden plank walkway, reminiscent of a gallows floor or a slave boat. For a moment, a woman stepped slowly in heeled shoes and gave the place its lone sound. Until the turn of a corner that brought the trickle of a waterfall; Duluth's Scott Bol said, "It looks like falling tears."
"I'm reading a lot about lynching," said Bol, a self-professed water protector who is familiar with the direct action style of protests common in the Civil Rights Movement and which still today can get a person arrested for locking onto, say, a bank gate as Bol did earlier this year. "I read about one young black man who was lynched because he would not let a white man beat him in a fight. What kind of honor is that? People were lynched for vagrancy, writing letters to white women. It's crazy."
Henry Banks, who co-founded the Duluth memorial to its three lynching dead, was taken aback by the gravity of the memorial.
"On and on and on," he said of the monuments. "Unreal. Amazing. It's all I can say."
The open-air memorial guides its visitors to a grassy center court, which would seem to be a kind of freedom. Instead, surrounded by the hanging momentos, it's claustrophobic and tightens the chest to see the havoc brought to families and the deads' ancesteries.
Outside the hanging pillars were a second set of pillars which will in time be claimed and brought back to be displayed by their hometowns. St. Louis County's pillar lay like a coffin alongside all the rest in what appeared as bars of a xylophone - their music played out but still ringing all the same.