In downtown Montgomery, Ala., the Court Square fountain marks the location of an ancient artesian well, a source of water for native tribes before the area was settled by white people.
Later the well became the site of one of the most prominent slave auctions in America. Enslaved people of African descent, brought in by steamboat and train, were marched up Commerce St. to various slave depots and the auction site where the fountain now stands. The commerce of the day involved the selling of people, land, and livestock.
Just blocks away, where one of those warehouses used to be located, is the new Legacy Museum, which draws a solid line between the slavery of that time period and the mass incarceration of today. A little farther is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which memorializes the thousands of African American victims of racial terror lynchings. Suspended from the ceiling are 600 six-foot steel monuments, one for each county where lynchings took place.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the forced migration of enslaved African people to North America, to what eventually became Virginia. This is an occasion to remember, to repent, to repair. In the past month, Christian Churches Together made a pilgrimage to Montgomery to observe this anniversary, and the National Council of Churches chose Hampton, Va., for its unity gathering.
This is also an occasion to read. For Christians, a bracing education can be found in The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, by Jemar Tisby. This straightforward account traces the church’s history with racism from the colonial era to now. Reading this book “is like having a sobering conversation with your doctor and hearing that the only way to cure a dangerous disease is by undergoing an uncomfortable surgery and ongoing rehabilitation,” the author warns. “Although the truth cuts like a scalpel and may leave a scar, it offers healing and health.”
Observing that we are in a third reconstruction—the first coming after the Civil War and the second during the civil rights movement—Tisby urges immediate and serious action. Christianity in America has been built on sand, he says, and minor repairs won’t fix this flawed foundation. “The church needs the Carpenter from Nazareth to deconstruct the house that racism built and remake it into a house for all nations.”
Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.