Facing Our Past Is Our Way Forward
So many countries around the world share dark histories of injustice, violence, and distorted notions of supremacy and racism. In my twenty years working on human rights around the world, including as an appointee in the Obama administration, I saw firsthand the devastation caused by decades of atrocities and discrimination, where cycles of violence and revenge stunt communities and prevent entire nations from reaching their potential. But I also saw something more hopeful — how truth, dialogue and remembrance can lead to profound reckoning and forgiveness, ultimately strengthening communities and allowing them to heal the inter-generational wounds that destroy nations.
As the President and CEO of the Glide Foundation, I had that knowledge and promise very much in mind this week as I had the honor of accompanying eighty of my colleagues and friends on a journey from San Francisco to the heart of the Deep South — Montgomery, Alabama — to witness the culmination of a tremendous and, for this country, unprecedented undertaking: the opening of the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
Led by the esteemed public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, the Memorial and the Legacy Museum are profound interventions in a toxic silence surrounding America’s culpability in the historic and ongoing maltreatment of its African American people. The Museum’s stark thesis, that American slavery did not end in 1865 but only evolved, is given irrefutable expression in its continuum of horrors — as well as resistance — from the antebellum years through subsequent eras of terror lynching, convict leasing, segregation, and mass incarceration.
The memorial, meanwhile, which honors some 4,400 known victims of lynching across the United States from the end of Reconstruction to 1950, is a stunningly solemn, simple, and powerful place. You may have already read about the rusted steel blocks that memorialize the names of those whose lives were taken without any semblance of justice, but to see each of the 800 blocks — one for each county in America where lives were taken without due process, with names listed of lives lost — is to feel the weight of our country’s darkest shame.
Like other countries around the world, we must confront our hard truths in order to heal and move beyond them. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, pointedly influenced by memorials to the Holocaust and South African apartheid, is more than a powerful statement — it’s a rallying cry for both humility and courage, which opens the door to real conversation about our dark shame and how it has impacted generations upon generations afterward.
It is my hope that this dialogue will grow, and one day lead to true equality and a more perfect practice of justice in America. At Glide, we start here in the Tenderloin, a densely populated low-income neighborhood in the center of the city that’s home to half of San Francisco’s homeless residents. Here systemic inequities and oppression play out every day, brutalizing especially black and brown people across the poor and marginalized populations we serve and stand with. While our journey to Montgomery has deepened rather than altered our understanding of the challenges we face, it has provided us with new contexts, new allies, new stories as we champion racial and economic equity and provide the space for thought-provoking public conversation across the lines that appear to divide us. Without an unvarnished truth and open dialogue, without this national reckoning, we will all continue to suffer the effects of the abuse and torture our nation has carried out on African Americans for centuries.
We from Glide were proud and humbled to travel to Montgomery to support this special opening; for us it was a pilgrimage, a transformative experience that draws the path ahead into ever sharper focus. We return to San Francisco and our work here more determined than ever to see the Bay Area fulfill its promise, and set a national example, as a place for people from all walks of life, all practices of faith, all skin colors, where the wounds that have festered far too long may at last heal.
Karen Hanrahan is the President and CEO of the Glide Foundation. She is an executive leader with twenty years of experience advancing human rights around the world, and now here in San Francisco.