By Morghan Phillips, ’18

I am so grateful that I was able to attend the Equal Justice Initiative’s Peace and Justice Opening Summit. I would like to extend a special thanks to Emily Stewart and everyone at the Human Rights Center for granting me this wonderful opportunity. I absorbed so much over those few days, and I know that I will cherish memories from this weekend for years to come.

I have been asked several times what my favorite panel was, and each time my answer is the same, “I loved them all too much to choose.” All of the panels I went to were intriguing in their own right. However, for the purpose of this blog post I will just talk about the first panel I attended, with Michelle Alexander and Sherrilyn Ifill, moderated by Jelani Cobb.

Sidenote: I met Michelle Alexander as she was walking into the conference room, which was really special to me because I relied heavily on her book, The New Jim Crow, when doing research for my capstone paper on drug reform for human rights.

I was really pleased with the overwhelming presence of powerful Black women (shout out to Ava DuVernay, Anna Deavere Smith, Marian Wright Edelman, Catherine Coleman-Flowers, Michelle Alexander and Sherrilyn Ifill!). Black women are often left out of the conversation of mass incarceration as if only Black men are affected by this crisis. Michelle Alexander acknowledged that she has been complicit in this in her research when she noted that “Black women are deeply affected by mass criminalization. They are just impacted differently. And this problem has received far less attention from people than it deserves, including people like me.” It was refreshing to hear from various Black women throughout the conference, and recognize the trauma that we face as Black women in the age of mass incarceration.

I spent the whole weekend, anticipating our trip to the Museum and Memorial. I must admit, I am a very emotional person. And after hearing all of the panelists stories of the experience being “more than they could have even imagined”, I just knew I would be an emotional mess when I got to see it for myself. And that I was. I pretty much cried throughout the whole experience.

Photo by Emily Stewart

Before attending this conference, I was unaware of the extent to which lynchings occurred. This information is not shared in mainstream media or education. This knowledge must be actively sought out, but thankfully the EJI has worked hard to provide resources to make this knowledge more accessible. During the first session, one of the panelists informed us that there were 2-3 lynchings happening a week for 30 decades. And at the memorial, I learned about the size of the crowds that would attend these lynchings to marvel at the violence inflicted upon Black people. I knew that crowds would gather at lynchings, sometimes even have picnics and take home souvenirs. But in my head, a crowd would be at most 500 people. At the memorial, I learned that some of the crowds were up to 15 THOUSAND people. I am still trying to wrap my head around the idea that 15,000 people would really participate in these truly horrific events. And to look at the memorial stones and imagine the stories behind the names was really saddening too, especially when I realized that some of the people lynched were family members or groups of people killed on the same day or within the same time range.