By Diana Mahoney
Oversized plaques, encased exhibits, multi-colored murals, all in an effort to convey stories of what has been. Attempts to unpack the past, to inspire the future. Millions of dollars poured into glossy photographs and stimulating exhibits. Our abridged attempts to give explanations to the “whys” of what has been. To unravel the complicated web of the stories we have tangled together over the centuries.
Once upon a time, before we understood inhibitions or colors or hate, we were her. Neither the tension in the air nor the black and white pictures of a burning bus adorning the brightly lit walls of the town’s new exhibit bother her as she toddles back and forth between the rows of adults. Adults who are attempting to make peace, to reconcile a half-century-old story.
Cookie crumbs clinging to her little hands, she reaches out to me to pick her up. I lift her up, tiny billowing white sundress and all and am greeted by two huge, beautiful brown eyes.
“Hi.” I say. Because it’s the best thing I can come up with to say to an almost-two-year-old. She stares back at me before wrapping her tiny arms around my neck and I feel her soft heartbeat as she snuggles close. She pulls back and looks deeply into my eyes and points at the tall, hulking frame of a man across the room.
“Grandpa.” She says.
“Grandpa.” I repeat it back to her. A contagious smile spreads across her little face and I can’t help but smile back. The man she is pointing at, the hero of the evening, is Hank Thomas, whose first greeting from Anniston was in a blazing Greyhound bus surrounded by a jeering, violent mob fifty years before. Whose physical presence is bringing a whole new dimension to my understanding of history and the people it takes to make change possible.
“Monuments aren’t about buildings or plaques. They’re about the people that are walking around. They’re you, and you, and you. Because you are the ones who are living testament to what we fought for.” Charles Person, one of the original Freedom Riders confided in us late one night as we sat around on mix-matched chairs talking about forgiveness and reconciliation with the nature of people.
We’re all monuments. Because we stand testament to the stories of those who came before us, through our lives we bring remembrance to the stories of those who have come and those who have gone. We are evidence that they were here. That their stories, their struggles, their sacrifices, were not in vain. Our lives, living, breathing, passionate monuments whose everyday existence stands testament to the future they unswervingly and faithfully believed someday would be.
As the program draws to a close a man stands in the center of the crowd. Choked up with emotion, he turns toward Hank Thomas and admits that his father was part of the mob that brutally beat Hank fifty years before. The men embrace for a moment before Hank releases him, reaches down and swoops Lily up.
Lily’s that monument. I’m that monument. You’re that monument. Museums, plaques, statues cannot come close to displaying the effect of the past on today the way we can. The sacrifices, dreams and desires of yesterday are manifested in the way that we walk, and talk and think today.
The three of them embrace in a moment that takes my breath away. Lily stares first at her grandfather then at the other man. Her eyes wide, questioning. She wiggles out of Hank’s arms as he sets her down on the floor. She takes one good, long look around the room, and then, suddenly, she begins to dance.