By A. R. Vander Vegt
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 


From the Editor


This past week, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. It is the first memorial in the United States to be “dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”

Do we see the magnitude of that statement? The nation’s first memorial around these issues. Its first memorial dedicated to documentation about slavery and discrimination.

Quick history lesson: July 4, 1776 is seen as America’s birthday. Forever the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” are enshrined in the American conscience. Despite these words, the unalienable rights to all people would not be accessible for a number of years. In 1863, 86 years later, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation only applied to the 10 states in rebellion, but in 1865, legal slavery was ended.

In 1870, the 15th Amendment was adopted into the U.S. constitution, which granted black men the right to vote. Fifty years later, in 1920, the long-fought battle for women’s suffrage was won — or so it seemed. African American women still faced opposition in exercising their right to vote. Not only that, Jim Crow laws were in full swing, propagating “separate but equal.”

It wasn’t until 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, public segregation was ended and employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin was banned.

The United States is a relatively new nation. I don’t think we remember that. If we consider July 4, 1776 as the birth of our nation, we’ve only been at this democracy experiment for 242 years. In the scope of world history, that’s nothing. It was only 54 years ago we passed the Civil Rights Act, only 53 years ago when the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting, was passed.

That means this nation has spent more years entrenched in legal segregation than it has spent out of it. Let me repeat that: this nation has more years under its belt as a purveyor of racial discrimination than it has spent practicing the self-evident truth that all men are created equal.


Wow. Wow. Wow.

That is why the opening of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the companion Legacy Museum is incredibly important. We do a lot to try and remove ourselves from the sins of our ancestors, but those sins are very much living and prevalent in today’s world. How much do we really know about slavery, other than it happened? How much do we shy away from learning about the policies and ramifications of the Reconstruction era? What do we know of today’s justice system and mass incarceration? Do we even attempt to see if any manifestation of prejudice is entrenched deeply in our own lives? In one way or another, it probably is.

Duluth soil is at the memorial. It joins hundreds of other jars of soil, each from sites of documented lynchings. Yes, a lynching happened here in Minnesota in 1920. I didn’t know about it until I attended college near Chicago. Here I had grown up on a steady diet of a North Exceptionalism, only to find out 1. A lynching occurred not 100 miles from my home, and 2. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. considered racism in the northern states to be more sinister than in the South.

We cannot know what we do not know. The only way to know is to dig. To research. To have uncomfortable conversations with our neighbors and friends, our families, with ourselves. By knowing about The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and maybe even taking a trip to see it, maybe a form of reckoning can take place. One visit to the memorial, one moment of serious consideration of it will not reckon us to the grievances of the past. Learning, listening, struggling over questions and puzzling over answers must be a posture for a lifetime.

Museums and memorials have been erected in effort to keep the horrors of the Holocaust in remembrance. We are working hard to preserve the memories and experiences of those who lived through it, and we are on a time crunch. That generation is passing away, and as they pass away, who will be here to make sure their stories are heard?

Why wouldn’t the same kind of recognition and reckoning occur in the U.S.? It is due for many people groups, for an outstanding amount of years.


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