Alabama, United States – It’s a sunny day in early May, in Thorsby, a small town in rural Alabama.
As we make our way down Peachtree Drive, the houses begin to give way to trailers as the dusty road turns into a dirt track.
It leads to a lake, trees lining its banks.
This is where John B Smith, a 73-year-old civil rights activist from Atlanta, Fabian Medea, my South African husband, and I get out of the car.
We take in our surroundings. The serenity of this place – rippling water, rustling leaves and a clear blue sky – belies its ugly past.
On June 4, 1895, a young man by the name of Jim Powell was lynched here.
It must have been hot then, too, one of those sweltering summer evenings, when Powell, an African American farmhand, allegedly entered the room of 15-year-old Mary Bussey. According to accounts, she screamed and he ran.
Some hours later, his lifeless, badly beaten body dangled from a tree at this lake.
John is on his knees, digging vigorously with a small trowel.
“We recognise that you have lived, Jim Powell, and we feel your pain,” he says, before depositing some earth into a large glass jar with Jim’s name on it and the date and place where he died.
“The world now knows that you lived,” says John, pausing to look across the lake.
John is participating in the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) Soil Collection Project.
‘Drenched in their blood’
Earlier that day, John, Fabian and I are at the EJI’s office, in a former warehouse where slaves were kept before being sold at a nearby market, in downtown Montgomery.
Old people with walking sticks, teenagers with headphones on, people of all ages and races, are filing through the doors into the main presentation room.
The EJI was founded by Bryan Stevenson in 1994 to represent people on death row, but has since broadened its focus to include other issues pertaining to racial justice.
Stevenson thanks the 100 or so people who have gathered and begins his address.
“Lynching was racial terrorism. It is not true that 9/11 was the first domestic instance of terrorism. African Americans who lived through lynchings, bombings and persecution were terrorised on American soil,” he says.
The EJI started its soil collection initiative in 2015, as a symbolic commemoration of victims of lynching, Stevenson explains.
“Victims of lynchings were not recognised and not remembered. But the Earth is drenched in their blood,” he declares.
‘I am here’
Then Stevenson speaks about a woman he met while defending Walter McMillian, a black man who was wrongfully accused and sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman in Monroeville in 1989. After a protracted legal battle, McMillian was exonerated in 1993.
He describes how an elderly lady, Mrs Williams, had walked towards the metal detectors at the entrance to the courtroom and how she had retreated after spotting the sniffer dogs checking the bags of those entering.
The next day, she returned. Muttering to herself, “I ain’t afraid of no dog,” she walked through the detectors and past the dogs.
“Then she said to me: ‘I am here’,” Stevenson recalls. “I said I was so happy to see her back in the courtroom, so I welcomed her and I returned to my papers.”
“When McMillian was led into the courtroom, I heard Mrs Williams’ voice again. ‘You didn’t hear me, I said I am here’, she proclaimed in a loud voice. After the judge came in, Mrs Williams didn’t sit down, like everyone else. She again reiterated her mantra, ‘I am here.'”
In Just Mercy, his 2013 bestseller about racial justice in the United States, Stevenson writes about the moment he understood what Mrs Williams was trying to say. “I may be old, I may be poor, I may be black, but I’m here. I’m here because I’ve got this vision of justice that compels me to be a witness,” he wrote.
This notion of “being here” and bearing witness is central to the EJI’s racial justice work, and to its Soil Collection Project in particular.
“This is what you will be doing today,” Stevenson tells the crowd. “You will say ‘I am here’, you will bear witness.”
And with that, the EJI staff hand out leaflets with information about those victims we will be focusing on today, directions to the lynching sites, trowels and glass jars.
|[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]|