Opinion: To fix today, we must confront our past around race

Brunswick - Hundreds of people participate in a rally outside the Glynn County courthouse seeking justice for Ahmaud Arbery on Saturday, May 16, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Brunswick - Hundreds of people participate in a rally outside the Glynn County courthouse seeking justice for Ahmaud Arbery on Saturday, May 16, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

“I think we need truth and justice in our country. I think we’re going to have to reckon with our history. I don’t think we’re going to be free until we have the courage to change the narrative.”

– Bryan Stevenson, May 11, 2020, Emory University’s 175th Commencement

When acclaimed human rights lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson delivered the keynote address at Emory University’s 175th Commencement — held remotely and entirely online for the first time in history — he didn’t take long to mention the months-old killing of young black man Ahmaud Arbery in Southeast Georgia. And rightfully so. After inaction and possibly an outright cover-up by the local police and legal system, the injustice of his death only recently came into the national spotlight through the leak of an eyewitness video that documented the attack that took his life. The calls for justice in that case currently reverberate in Minneapolis, following the more recent horrific killing of George Floyd.

But Stevenson didn’t blame just the individuals who perpetrate crimes of this kind. He also rightfully blamed the false, sanitized narrative of myths and lies that have distorted our collective memory of the United States’ past injustices to humanity — the horrors of slavery and genocide, the marginalization of the impoverished, the persecution of the weak. Despite the progress we’ve made since the Civil Rights Movement more than 50 years ago, Stevenson points out that the pervading narrative still presumes that black and brown people, religious minorities, and so many others, are dangerous, guilty, less than human.

If we want to make another leap in progress against this narrative, if we are going to move forward in a constructive, meaningful way, then there must be a true accounting of our country's history and the roles that our predecessors played in it. As Stevenson pointed out in his speech, other countries — South Africa, Rwanda and Germany — have taken far greater strides to own up to their pasts. In Berlin, it is difficult to even casually walk down the street without coming upon what they call Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, that list the names of the victims of the Holocaust right in front of the places where they were born or kidnapped or murdered. They're a small, but powerful reminder of the past, and mark a sense of responsibility that Germans as a people have taken for their ancestors' actions.

In recent years, perhaps in that spirit, efforts have been made to remove Confederate war monuments. But it is not apparent that this is sufficient to reshape our collective memory about our brutal past. Perhaps a better approach is contextualizing these monuments, providing a complete sense of their place in our history as a nation. In my dream world, we wouldn’t sandblast the face of Stone Mountain and remove the images of the Confederate leaders. Instead, we’d create a museum that you’d have to walk through before you could enter the park. It would tell people what the Civil War was really fought over, it would show the brutality of slavery, it would trace the history of Stone Mountain itself and how it became part of the Lost Cause movement and played a pivotal role in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. I think people will still flock there and appreciate it in a whole new way — as a site of memory and reverence — rather than subconsciously consuming its old neo-Confederate ideas.

We need more sites like what Stevenson and his Equal Injustice Initiative (EJI) helped create in Montgomery, Alabama, with the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The Legacy Museum took a former slave warehouse site and turned it into space to share history. Meanwhile, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a powerful, emotive creation dedicated to the legacy of enslavement, segregation, prejudice and terroristic lynching. Somehow, by acknowledging these truly ugly moments we can find a sense of unexpected beauty here — not just in the memorial itself but in humanity.

Sometimes, I think we don’t have more of these places because people are afraid that in confronting the past it will create a new conflict to further divide us. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think they can be uniting spaces, especially seeing how as most of us weren’t old enough to be there. We weren’t the perpetrators or the victims. And not being directly part of these horrors allows us to learn from this history and unites us in our responsibility to do things not only for ourselves and for future generations, but also for those who were there and are no longer with us.

Fred Smith Jr. is associate professor at Emory University School of Law. He is a scholar of the federal judiciary and constitutional law. In 2019, he was named the law school’s Outstanding Professor of the Year.