MONTGOMERY, Ala. - By the time this story reaches doorsteps and browsers, the 34-member contingent sent to represent Duluth at the opening of a national lynching memorial ought to be home - unwelded from their bus seats and stretching into a new week.

For the group's members, many of whom were associated with the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in downtown Duluth, the trip was equal parts discovery of new places within themselves and without, and affirmation of things they've long known.

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Brady Slater
Brady Slater
"I got a chance to shake Rev. Jesse Jackson's hand," said Ronnie Wells, a proud member of St. Mark's African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Central Hillside neighborhood of Duluth. "He's inspired me all of my life."

With the end of the journey comes the following loose ends - none less important than the coverage that came before it. In fact, consider what follows to be the finale of a week's worth of fireworks:

WHAT WOULD THEY THINK? Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie are Duluth's lynching dead - a triumvirate, forever linked by their hangings in 1920, that was among the estimated 5,000 people, most of them black, who paid the ultimate price for the country's systemic white supremacy.

What would they think now?

Now that scores of people have descended upon the capital city of Alabama to say by their numbers that our original sin as a nation was to market its equality while believing in its heart that one race was greater than the rest ... what would the victims of lynchings think now?

Now that people from around the country have stood together to present a different face from the last ones they saw. Imagine their horror as they took in the raging vigilante actors spitting hate from their mouths and delivering death in their movements. Imagine not seeing a loved one in the chaos - unless it was another terrified face at your side about to die but not ready for it or deserving of it.

What would the lynching victims think now that new faces have stood for them with eyes cast up at the Memorial for Peace and Justice - its pillars rusty to represent many tones of black skin and hung to evoke the deaths of those who were lost to a nation gone mad in its hypocrisy?

Was the opening of a national lynching memorial the reconciliation it was meant to be? And if it was, what would the victims of lynching think now to look out at those new faces saying finally that what happened to those victims was wrong?

"I think they would be pleased," said Claudie Washington, longtime and former NAACP president in Duluth. "I think they would appreciate that somebody cared to remember them and tell their story."

Said Duluth East student Abbie Amundsen, contemplating out loud the notion of reconciliation and whether it could truly be here in a nation where racism and fear of the other remain alive: "I think they would think the memorial was a good start."

MEMORIAL COST: Catherine Boyer of Auburn, Ala., was impressed by the cost of entry to the memorial in downtown Montgomery. It's $5. "It needs to be accessible," she said, "so that's good."

HITTING CLOSE TO HOME: Catherine Flowers introduced former Vice President Al Gore on Friday at the conference accompanying the opening of the memorial. Gore, like North Carolina preacher Rev. William Barber the day before, gave an incendiary keynote speech. But Flowers comes with a fiery reputation of her own as the rural development manager for the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, which created the memorial and its corresponding museum. The News Tribune, cognizant of the Superior refinery explosions this week, asked her about fossil fuels. It seems companies like to say fossil fuels are necessary because the world is still transitioning to renewables. Similarly, his fellow clergymen used to tell Martin Luther King Jr. to wait for desegregation because the world was transitioning socially. King and countless others tired of waiting and acted. So are fossil fuels still required for the world's energy transition?

"No," Flowers said flatly. "I don't think we have to wait. We have the technology now to replace fossil fuels. The people who want us to wait are the people making money off of fossil fuels."

Gore addressed this, too, in his speech, saying the time for fossil fuels was over, "Every great worldly-based improvement was met with endless waves of Nos."

UNKNOWN BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: Five-thousand was the number used often for a rough total of lynching dead. But it's an estimate. There are countless others, Barber said, who were killed and disappeared unaccounted for - "buried in the mud of Southern swamps," he said.

BIG NAMES: Sens. Doug Jones and Cory Booker, of Alabama and New Jersey, respectively, were in the crowd to hear Gore, whose acknowledgement of both men drew standing ovations. When a member of the audience called out for Gore to run again for president, he demurred. "I'm a recovering politician," said Gore, whose Southern accent seemed thicker for his time spent out of the limelight and at home in Tennessee.

EYES WIDE SHUT: The Legacy Museum, an intimate space and a hard ticket to come by throughout the week, is a wonder in its bittersweetness. The museum was once the site of a slave warehouse. It accompanies the memorial several blocks away. Every word in the museum - and there are lots - feels necessary to tell the history. There are stunning displays, including a series of cells in which apparitions float from unseen projection effects and tell slave stories. One statistic that stood out: The country's incarceration rate jumping from 300,000 in 1972 to 2.3 million today. It seemed unreal. "You're not paying attention," a black elder said in a mildly scolding way. "They're making money off of the vulnerable and the poor. You've got to keep your eyes open from now on."

 

News Tribune reporter Brady Slater can be contacted at bslater@duluthnews.com or (218) 279-5590.