Lord, Have Mercy on This Land of Mine

I don’t know what most folks look for when they travel, but as a historian, one of the most interesting intersections to me in all of America is in Alabama: a circle called Court Square, at the center of downtown Montgomery. It is not a particularly commanding visual, and it holds some of the greatest horrors of the American past in its cobblestones. But as a relic of the layers of American history, all crowded into one tiny little space, it’s hard to beat.

A quick tour: in the center of the traffic circle sits an innocent-looking fountain, with birds jetting water towards the base and water spurting from a jug held by a sculpture of Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth, at the top. The fountain was installed in 1885. A sign there will tell you of Court Square’s role as the “historic hub for business” in Montgomery and lists the many historic processions that passed it by: Jefferson Davis’s inauguration in 1861, the return of the so-called Rainbow Division after World War I in 1919, MLK’s Selma to Montgomery march in 1965.

If you were wondering just what kind of “business” they’re referring to, however, a sign across the street tells you what stood there before the graceful flow of water. MONTGOMERY’S SLAVE MARKETS, it begins, and proceeds to tell you that Court Square was one of four depots in Alabama’s capital where human beings were sold alongside livestock and commerce. An able field hand, it notes, would have brought in about $1500 in the 1850s (nearly $60,000 today); a skilled artisan could go for as much $3000. No mention is made of the separated families, of the public display, the shame, and the horrors of the auction block, or of the humanity of the people on display.

Directly across Commerce Street, gazing in the direction of the fountain, is another sculpture, one so diminutive and human-shaped that you might mistake her for a passerby waiting to cross the street. That of course is Rosa Parks, who boarded the bus upon which she would set in motion the Montgomery Bus Boycott at Court Square, before being thrown off several blocks away (where the Rosa Parks Museum is now located). On the other side of Dexter Avenue, you can find two more historical postings: a pedestal explaining the layout of Montgomery (designed as two towns that merged in 1819, the city is gridded on two different axes that are perpendicular to each other) and one sign highlighting the building behind it as the place from which Confederate generals authorized the firing on Fort Sumter that began the Civil War.

Perhaps Parks is meant to be seeing the fountain, or the slave auctions that preceded it. Perhaps she is seeing into the future, where ten years after her protest Dr. King would lead his Selma to Montgomery march through Court Square up Dexter Avenue, past the church he once pastored at, to the Alabama State Capitol. Perhaps she gazes even further, up to the hill just outside of downtown to where now stands the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the first memorial in the nation dedicated to the thousands of African Americans lynched under Jim Crow in the years that separated the end of slavery and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps she is seeing nothing at all, gathering her thoughts before she writes her name in history.

It’s a funny place, Montgomery. That converse layout of the city’s streets proves an apt metaphor for a city that is still at war with itself: a place that depends on Civil Rights Movement tourists to generate money for the city but, in its role as the seat of state government, seems committed to learning as little from the movement as it possibly can. Montgomery is one of Alabama’s main centers of tourism these days. That number is up in part thanks to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which has drawn in a new flood of visitors from around the country, and its nearby counterpart, the Legacy Museum, which traces the many connections that link slavery to modern-day mass incarceration.

That museum is there because the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization that advocates for incarcerated persons who may have been denied fair trials, is headquartered in Montgomery. You see, Alabama also has the highest per-capita capital sentencing rate of any state in the Union. Just this month, the family of Joe Nathan James sued the state for his execution last year, which is believed to be the longest execution by lethal injection in U.S. history. Jones’s family argues that Alabama violated James’s 8th Amendment rights by letting him suffer in agony for three hours. History is heavy here – but the present is not any lighter. EJI has turned some of its efforts to building memorials and museums because its workers believe that we must face the past in order to reckon properly with that present.

I first visited Montgomery in January 2020 to see the National Memorial with a nonprofit group that I was working for. I returned this past week for less than 24 hours, hunting for a few specific documents in the Alabama State Archives. It was my last leg of a blitz tour of state capitals and their archives: Nashville, Tennessee; Jackson, Mississippi; and finally Montgomery. I was there to check for specific records that predate the Civil Rights Movement by decades, and yet all week I felt myself in its shadow.

Myopia is one of the side-effects of dissertation work. There is so much to know about the specific topic you have chosen that you must wear blinders, at least for a little while, to the larger picture – there is not time to view all the documents or see all the things you are interested in if you want to do your actual research thoroughly. In Nashville, I drove down streets named for Rosa Parks and Rep. John Lewis and then walked straight past the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights room to their Special Collections to look at city records. I drove past Memphis entirely, a city I have hoped to visit for years, because I did not have time to stop. In Mississippi, I skipped the new Civil Rights Museum and the Medgar Evers Memorial to browse old newspapers, where I skimmed past report after report about lynchings in southern Mississippi in pursuit of the records of a particular monument. I drove from Jackson to Montgomery along the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march route and did not stop at a single marker. There is not time to see everything, not if you want to actually write something someday.

But my blinders are rather faulty. I noted Mississippi and Alabama’s enormous Confederate memorials, Tennessee’s shrines to three of America’s worst presidents (Andrew Jackson, James Polk, and Andrew Johnson – not favorites in my book, anyway). I saw the #NashvilleStrong posters and the steps from which Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were expelled last month for protesting Tennessee’s gun laws. I saw Medgar Evers everywhere and nowhere in Mississippi: in coffee shops, on brochures, and in the voices of white men in the Civil Rights Museum’s coffee shop as they discussed renovations to Vicksburg National Military Park and their efforts to make it the ‘Southern Gettysburg,’ a shrine to what the Confederacy could have been. (Perhaps they had forgotten: the Union won both the battle of Gettysburg and the siege of Vicksburg within a day of each other – Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, and Vicksburg on July 4. Or perhaps that simply didn’t matter in a country where, as is so often said, the North won the war, but the South won the peace).

Most of all in Mississippi, I heard Nina Simone. I learned the version of Mississippi Goddam that she recorded after Dr. King’s assassination, where Memphis is at the real heart of her protest and her grief, and I did not know until recently that the original version was written five years earlier, after the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi. When I first heard the song as a teenager, I viewed it as a relic of history, a monument to a particular time and place. Now, as I played it after I took a wrong turn out of Jackson and ended up stuck on a backcountry road for ten miles, it felt like a warning. I really can’t stand the pressure much longer – somebody say a prayer. The Southern fog that blankets the fields and the roads most mornings is no joke. As I turned this way and that, I watched the fog rising off of someone’s pond and thought inadvertently of Gomorrah: and lo, smoke was on the land like the smoke on a kiln.

Everybody knows about Mississippi – but what do we know about Mississippi that we don’t know about the rest of this country? People send me warnings to be safe whenever I am in the South, I’ve noticed. And I am careful, I assure you – as safe as a young woman traveling alone can be, anyhow. I am white, and that is the most powerful protective charm I could carry. I do not need a Green Book to navigate the South. I can keep my blinders on, should I choose. But Dr. King once said that it was to Chicago, my beloved, Northern home city, a city where he was struck by a brick in Marquette Park, that Mississippians ought to go to learn how to hate. It was the brutality of Minneapolis, that great star of the North, that brought the world to its knees in 2020.

I do not mean to suggest that the laws in place down here are immaterial – they pose great dangers. But there are people down here living their lives, doing the best that they can, just like any other place. Many, like those at EJI, are doing indispensable work, work that represents the very best of this country.  What do we know about Mississippi, then? About Alabama?

On my last turn out of Court Square, I noticed something new since my last trip to Montgomery: a Black Lives Matter mural, painted around the fountain’s base in the summer of 2020. Three years on, it has already begun to fade. The power of that square is that you can see all the hope and all the promise of history, and you can watch it fade away in real time. As I drove out of Montgomery, I thought of Nina Simone again and was surprised to find myself crying. Lord, have mercy on this land of mine. How much can we say has changed? What does Rosa Parks see, staring at that square?

Walter Benjamin once described the Angel of History as an angel with its head screwed on backwards, borne ceaselessly to a future that it cannot see, unable to act as it watches disaster after disaster pile up before its eyes. It is a bleak picture probably reinforced by his own life: Benjamin committed suicide while fleeing the Nazis in 1940. Looking at the hopes of Court Square and setting them against the lives of George Floyd and Joe Nathan James, one can see why he thought that way.

Our leg up on the Angel of History (and perhaps, too, on Benjamin) is our ability to face forward: to witness the disasters of the past and then to step voluntarily into the future. A memorial to lynching is not nearly so unthinkable as the idea that people travel from all over the nation, from all over the world, to see it. That they have, that they do – that moves us forward. That people will allow themselves to be hurt by this history, to feel disappointed in what it promised and what it has not yet delivered, is a good thing. It need not lead us down the path to despair. It might instead lead us to accountability, to mercy, and to hope.

Title of course from “Mississippi Goddam” – if somehow you are unacquainted with it, give it a listen here. It’s not just me – Rolling Stone put it on their list of Top 500 Songs of All Time, too!

EJI is doing magnificent work on both historical and legal fronts – check them out here, and give here if you can. Their founder Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy, which is sometimes taught in UMN’s history courses, is also well worth reading.

One thought on “Lord, Have Mercy on This Land of Mine”

  1. So remarkable once again, Eli. I did cry at times throughout this one. Because of the crimes in history you speak of. Mostly because I find it so hard to believe this country can pull itself up out of the downward spiral it is in. Your words want me to believe there can be accountability and from it mercy and hope. Lord have mercy, indeed.


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