My mind-blowing trip to Montgomery and Selma

This past weekend — on my Leap Day birthday, actually — I spent the day on a trip from Atlanta to Montgomery and Selma. The trip was put on by a few of the classmates of the 2020 Leadership Atlanta class (second best class ever to my class of 2013). #insidejoke

Me with my buddies (left to right): Sanjay, Mark, and Adam

We boarded the bus in Atlanta around 7 a.m. and drove the two and a half hours to Montgomery. On the way we watched a civil rights movie, chatted about our Leadership Atlanta experiences, and caught up with old friends.

In Montgomery, the first thing we did was visit the Legacy Museum. Unfortunately you cannot take photos inside this museum, but if you go to their website you can get a feel for what’s inside.

I don’t want to spoil too much — because I desperately want you to visit! — but my favorite part of the museum was the first thing you see when you go in. You enter into a slave warehouse where slaves were held until they were sold. They’ve created a hologram-like experience, showing slaves in their cells. In one was an old woman, in another two young children, etc. In each, they are telling their stories, and you can’t help but begin to imagine the horrors for people of color during that time. I have chills just thinking about it right now.

It’s important to note that everything we did in Montgomery was tied to the work of Bryan Stevenson and his organization, EJI (Equal Justice Institute). More on Byran in a minute, but the work they are doing is simply incredible.

We then went to the next EJI museum, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. You might have heard this museum referred to as the ‘Lynching Museum’. Without over-simplifying it, this museum exists to remind us of the thousands and thousands of lynchings that have happened in our country. Check out these photos:

Each of those large, bronze rectangles represents a county where there were lynchings. There were so many. So, so many.

Afterwards, we had the incredibly unique experience to have Bryan Stevenson talk to us over lunch. If you haven’t read Just Mercy, I implore you to do so. Even if you saw the movie, read the book. It is one of the most powerful things I have ever read.

The book is based on Bryan’s experience as a lawyer fighting for people on death row. In Alabama. As a black man, 30 years ago. You get it.

The stories he told will stay with me forever, and I can tell he’s really just getting started trying to make a difference in this world.

That’s Bryan Stevenson on the left, and Dr. Bernice King on the right — MLK, Jr.’s daughter :)
I can’t tell you how excited I was to get this shot with Bryan :) :) :)

We then headed West to Selma to end our day with a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This bridge was made famous during Bloody Sunday, when John Lewis, Hosea Williams, and so many others led a group of 600 civil rights activists to fight for voting rights.

Walking across that bridge, arms linked with the people on my right and left, I tried hard to imagine what it must have been like on that cold Sunday over 50 years before. While impossible to even begin to put ourselves in their shoes, it helped bring to life the enormity of what these people risked for the betterment of so many. The word that comes to mind: courageous. We could use more of that these days, couldn’t we?

Why did I go on this trip?

It was my birthday, an event that only happens every four years (thanks a lot, Julius Caesar). My kids always want to spend the day with me on that day, with an added bonus that I usually become the same age as one of them.

But I’m on a mission to constantly be expanding empathy within myself. I realize, to the extent I can, that I’m as privileged as a person can be. In each and every list I see (like this one) that explains how a person can be privileged, I check all the boxes. In fact, I like to say that other than being born a Kennedy (born into wealth and power), I’m the most privileged person on the planet.

I first realized this privilege during my Leadership Atlanta class in 2012, and a few years after that I was finally able to articulate my personal purpose: to have an out-sized, positive impact on the world. Since I have benefited from and continue to participate in a world that rewards me for unfair reasons, I must use that advantage to do as much good in the world as possible. It’s why I run a purpose-driven business (Dragon Army); it’s why I have founded and run two nonprofits (48in48 and Ripples of Hope); it’s why I am on the boards of The Carter CenterCentral OAC, and the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute; and to a certain extent it’s the reason I have two Chinese adopted children.

I realize that in order to continue to understand my privilege, I must continue to build empathy. While I read books and have conversations with people on this front, I have found that experiencing things in close proximity help me the most. I knew going on this trip would be hard, but I also knew it would be life-changing for me. Even though I’ve studied civil rights and slavery, read books on MLK, Jr., and gone through experiences like Race Day during Leadership Atlanta, taking the trip to Montgomery and Selma last Saturday deeply affected me as a person.

I will continue to look for ways to open my eyes, and I’d love to know of experiences you’ve had (or would recommend) in the same vein.

Before you leave

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