Reflecting on the Alexandria Community Remembrance Project’s Pilgrimage

Reflecting on the journey

From October 6th through 10th, ACT team members Heather Peeler and Sally Gardner (as well as other members of the ACT community) were able to participate in the The Alexandria Community Remembrance Project (ACRP) pilgrimage to the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum. This trip included a series of meaningful experiences, including crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge and delivering soil collected from Alexandria in a symbolic gesture to reflect the lives of Alexandria’s two known lynching victims – Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas.

We’ve asked Heather and Sally to reflect on their experience through their photos, videos, and thoughts on the experience.

What would you say your expectations were going into the experience?

Sally: I was very nervous about the trip because I knew that my participation would command a call to action. That said, knowing that I was privileged, as a white woman, and as a participant representing ACT, I was up for the task. Now that the trip is over, how am I called to act?

Heather: I had been to Montgomery in 2019 and had visited the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and the Memorial for Peace and Justice, so I knew it would be an emotionally challenging and informative trip. On this pilgrimage I was looking forward to being in community with friends and colleagues in Alexandria. I was also anticipating the collective grief and sadness of bringing the soil from Alexandria to remember Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas, the two young men that were lynched in Alexandria.

What about the trip surprised you the most?

Heather: Despite the feelings of sadness, anger and frustration that more progress has not been made, there were also many moments of joy. Montgomery tour guide, Wanda Battle, shared painful stories about her experience growing up in Montgomery.  But she also had a mischievous sense of humor, led our group in singing, and brought a full range of human experience and emotion to the tour, helping us see the full humanity of the black community beyond being victims.

Sally: I can say I was constantly surprised by the forgiving response of many to such blatant horrific terror imposed relentlessly on African Americans. It showed me:

  1. That forgiveness, though extremely difficult, remains a characteristic in the Black community. Time and time again, our tour guides told of their personal experiences and ended their words with “we have to lead with love.” Their collective response is an example of a strong Jesus/Gandhi-like ethic of non-violence and one I can learn from.
  2. That Black women, though not as recognized, were as much the organizers as the ministers of the civil rights movement.
  3. That learning and reading about the Jim Crow era is one thing, but to walk in the steps of those who gave their blood and worked (and continue to work) tirelessly for constitutional and moral freedoms is a privilege.

What part of the trip did you find the most inspiring?

Sally: The fact that Bryan Stevenson has transformed Montgomery from the roots of segregation and Jim Crow to the mecca for civil rights is inspiring. That one man has made a huge difference. For me, the ability now to walk the steps of the civil rights leaders, and almost to be able to viscerally feel the weight of the abuse and horror upon one race, is both very emotionally heavy, but also necessary. Giving the opportunity to our nation will help us to realize our collective national sin and work towards redemption.

Heather: Hearing from Linda Bland and Sheyann Webb-Christburg, two women who were part of the march in Selma on Bloody Sunday, was heart wrenching and inspiring.   As children they put their lives on the line for justice, an example of unbelievable. It made me think about how it is important to include and engage young people. And I’m so glad students from Alexandria City High School could be a part of the trip. Ms. Web-Christburg concluded her remarks by reminding us that our future depends on our ability to be a loving community, to serve and to be committed to making the world a better place – so inspiring!

What part did you find most challenging?

Heather: The Memorial for Peace and Justice is so powerful and overwhelming. The memorial features the names of 4,400 people who were known to be lynched in the United States. In speaking with one of the staff people, I learned that since the memorial was built, the research team at the Equal Justice Initiative has identified documentation of another 3,300 individuals that have been lynched. We want to think that this type of violence was rare, but in fact it was much more common place.

Sally: The Legacy museum provides graphic reminders of past and current events. The incarceration of thousands of Black males was particularly challenging for me and was a reminder to me of the times I visited my son in jail and he was wearing an orange jumpsuit, shackled as he was brought into court as an 11 year old, talking to him over the phone and seeing him through plexiglass when he was in solitary confinement. It was hard to re-live that time. And I realized again that trauma can reside in one’s DNA and comes out as fear, violence, depression. The absence of hope for many persists. Those who overcome such trauma are so strong and in my awe.

What, to you, was the most memorable moment?

Sally: There is so much that I will remember:

  • New friendships (I tried to sit with folks whom I did not know and I made some very special connections)
  • How the Peace & Justice Memorial’s somberness is presented with reverence and, dare I say, beauty. The presentation of the horror of the lynchings doesn’t lose it gravity, but instead makes a powerful statement with grace.
  • I’ll remember Wanda Baker, one of our tour guides, who spoke of growing up in Montgomery through loving presentations of stories and song; the rawness of the words of Joanne Bland and her sister from Selma who were children and participated in the walk across Edmund Pettus bridge on Bloody Sunday; the teacher from ACPS who felt rage in what he was experiencing, the gentleman on our trip who carried the soil of Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas from Alexandria to Montgomery and was “still processing” how he felt on the bus ride home.
  • I’ll remember walking slowly behind a participant in a wheelchair across the Edmund Pettus bridge without experiencing the fear that John Lewis, those young sisters and so many others must have felt in order that all people had the right to vote.  They certainly were laying down their lives for us.
  • I’ll remember the heaviness I felt after leaving the Legacy Museum.
  • I’ll remember the ghost town feeling of Montgomery.
  • I’ll remember the Mothers of Gynecology’s History, Hope and Healing Garden.
  • I’ll remember all the folks who came before us and who worked so hard to make this country a better place for all.
  • I’ll remember the long bus ride!
  • I’ll remember the movies, especially “Boycott” which I have watched again since returning home.

Heather: Two moments really stand out. First, hearing from Ms. Debra White who spoke on behalf of the McCoy family and witnessing her handing the jar of soil to representatives of the Equal Justice Initiative was incredibly moving. In her remarks, Ms. White connected Joseph McCoy’s murder to Ahmaud Arbery’s, reminding us that black men remain targets of racialized violence. The second memorable moment was the walk across the Edmond Pettus Bridge. To literally walk arm in arm with our community in the footsteps of Dr. King, John Lewis and hundreds of other civil rights leaders was unforgettable.

Was there anything on your journey, any place, and historical figure, any event – that you now see in a dramatically different way? What caused the change?

Heather: The tour guide at the Rosa Parks Museum went into great detail about the women behind the scenes who were instrumental in the fight for justice and voting rights. We tend to focus on the men who were out in front of the movement, but it was the organizing expertise of the women behind the scenes that enabled protests like the Montgomery bus boycott to be a success. For example, Jo Ann Robinson was one of the first people in Montgomery to call for a boycott five years before Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat. After Rosa Parks was arrested, Ms. Robinson worked through the night to produce 35,000 flyers calling for the bus boycott that would be distributed to the community, among other behind-the-scene tasks. Learning about her life and story helps me see how we can all play a role and understand that leadership comes in many forms.

Sally: Again, to have walked where those courageous freedom fighters walked helped to internalize the history. The courage and the stamina to make a difference in the civil rights era is impressive and shows me that I can do more.

Any parting thoughts you would like to share with us?

Sally: I am very grateful that Heather gave me the opportunity to be on this pilgrimage to witness the actions of the City of Alexandria to name our sin and ask for redemption.

Heather: I would encourage everyone to make their own pilgrimage to Montgomery if they can. In the words of Ms. White, a descendant of Joseph McCory, “We must open our hearts, minds and hands to confront racism. We must have a desire to change ourselves, not just others.” The other thing I would like to share is how much gratitude I have for Bryan Stevenson and everyone on the team at the Equal Justice Initiative. IMG_0259Not only are they saving the lives of people on death row who were wrongfully convicted, but they have created a national resource through the Legacy Museum and the Memorial for Peace and Justice that is changing communities across the country. It’s remarkable.


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