Michelle Browder: Juneteenth in Montgomery
On Juneteenth morning, June 19, the city of Montgomery, Alabama, woke to the vision of a circular Black Lives Matter mural painted around the city’s centrally located Court Square fountain. Court Square was the location of Montgomery’s slave market prior to Emancipation, and it is now the location of a monument to Rosa Parks.
The mural was the idea of longtime Montgomery activist and businesswoman Michelle Browder, whose MoreThanTours touring company has made headlines across the country. On the morning that the mural appeared, Browder delivered an impromptu speech online, streamed live, that offered an inspiring and informative riff on what matters about the Black Lives Matter movement.
What follows is a lightly edited version of her speech.
- J.C. Hallman
Alright y’all, good morning, good morning! Black joy! Good morning. Black joy!
Look here, beautiful people! Our ancestors are smiling! Our ancestors are happy, they’re happy! Our ancestors are beside themselves this morning!
Y’all give me about ten minutes, you understand. Cause this right here, shout out to the [Montgomery] Advertiser that posted the finished piece of art that we did down here. So I’m just going to recap this. I’m going to recap this.
Y’all wanna know how this came about? Let me tell you how this really came about. Remember about a month ago I told you about how I was depressed? I was just depressed because we live in a beautiful city with all of this history, and sometimes we don’t milk it like we should. But now with the new museums and memorials opens, there’s all this new interest. I have been living here for the last eighteen years, I’ve relished, what has kept me alive, is this history here in downtown Montgomery, Alabama.
So, a week ago, a week ago today, I’m at home , and I’m like being a creative in a city that has Stockholm syndrome. Okay? The people have Stockholm syndrome, because there are people who should speak up, but they don’t because they’re afraid of losing their job, or losing their funding, alright? So that depresses me, but a friend of mine calls me up, and literally like, I’m going to highjack something, and put some kind of message, on a building or something, about what’s happening for Juneteenth. What’s happening with Covid, what’s happening with the marginalization of black folks and brown folks, black folks mainly. The matter.
It’s the matter of black and brown people that has me a little down and depressed. And so a friend calls and says, Michelle, you been quiet, what are you doing? This lady called last Saturday, and she says, What are you doing? And I said, I’m being quiet because I’m angry, and because I don’t want to be inciteful. Because when I say things out of my heart—which is a matter—people vilify me because I speak the truth. Maybe sometimes it’s not the right time to speak the truth. But I speak the truth because something happened to me in my childhood which requires me to do that.
So, I was telling her, I was like, you know, sometimes I feel alone in Montgomery, Alabama, because when I speak the truth people don’t want to hear it. She says, Michelle,” whatever you want to do, in terms of this of what’s happening around the country, around the world people are posting Black Lives Matter, and taking over streets, and just raising this consciousness. She said, we’ll get behind you. And this is a prominent woman, a sister in Montgomery, Alabama. She said we’ll put the money behind you. So we started talking about Black Lives Matter in the street, and she said we have to put it up Dexter. I said, No ma’am! We have something that no other city in the Union has! It has history from enslavement of black folks to the Civil War, from Civil War to Civil rights. You have Reconstruction, you have the march from Selma to Montgomery. You have Rosa Parks. Montgomery, Alabama is the place to be! We should be in the middle of this conversation! The middle of the revolution that’s taking place right now. And Montgomery has been silent.
I’m depressed! Because I know what we got! But the people that live here don’t know what we have. So she says, Do it, I’ll get the clearance. I don’t know what the sister did, I know what she did, she called some folks, you understand? I called Kevin King—that man is my friend. I called him and I was like, bro, we need to do something. As a creative, we need to do something. I know a lot of folks be scared, but this is not the time to be scared. So I shot him the idea, and he was like, Alright, alright, alright!
So I said so why don’t I just reach out to all the creative organizations in Montgomery. Some that I haven’t worked with before. Like 21 Dreams. And they came on board. Six days later, out of my pocket, out of my youth organization, I got the supplies, Kevin brought the hands, you understand, and one day before we got the call from my girl down at the city planning, she calls me Wednesday, and we got the go ahead. This thing was funded by the citizens of Montgomery, by private businesses, it was okayed by our awesome mayor, so, I don’t know what the negative comments are, on the news, or whatever white people in Montgomery are saying about the Black Lives.
I don’t care! Nobody cares what y’all think! Nobody cares that we’ve had to look at Jefferson Davis. Every picture—when you look at Dr. King, Martin Luther King Jr., giving his speech on the back of a truck, he did it in front of Jefferson Davis, one hundred years later. Y’all didn’t care that a racist was behind him in the picture! When people come to Montgomery, and they take a picture of the capitol, there’s a racist, a treasonous backwards racist that’s in every photo.
Y’all are made because we put Black Lives Matter around the square where black people were bought, sold, and traded? That built this city? That nursed your babies? That picked your cotton? Huh? You all mad because Black Lives Matter is around the square? Don’t nobody care about that! This is black joy this morning!
Okay, so what happened was, we got the job done, you understand, we got it done, and a lot of private businesses stepped up to pay for it. We still need some money, so if you want to donate money, please send a check to I Am More Than, 17 Mildred Street, Montgomery Alabama, 36104. We didn’t get all the funds, but that’s not what really matters. Let me tell you about what mattered. We took over space. Downtown Montgomery, where black people were bought, sold, and traded.
Black lives mattered in 1619, because some folks went over and brought about twenty people over here. Went to Africa. The matter was, the British, the French, the Portuguese, and the Spaniards couldn’t lift a finger to take care of their damn selves, so what did they do? They went over to Africa, and brought in slaves through Jamestown, Virginia, to till the ground, for your rum, your cotton, your tobacco, and your rice. Black lives mattered, okay?
This is all about joy, this morning! I want you to look at this through a different set of eyes. Black lives mattered when the women from the antebellum south couldn’t take care and nurse their babies. It was their mammies who did that for them. Black lives mattered when Quaker Oats needed someone to sell their syrup or their pancakes! Black lives mattered, huh.
Black lives matter today with mass incarceration. When you need your streets cleaned up, when you need buildings fixed up, you go to the prisons for the “work release programs.” Black lives matter! Uh!
So I’m just letting you know. When it came down to going to war, in World War Two, black lives mattered. It was the Tuskegee Airmen that brought our men home without losing one! Black lives mattered! You see what I’m saying?
So, I don’t care that there’s some white people running around here talking about all lives matter. Well, guess what, because you don’t think that for real, because there’s some black lives, and brown lives that are on the boarder—children!—and they have not been fed. And families that have been split apart, just like they did during Jim Crow and slavery times. Black lives, brown lives, all lives mattered. If it mattered, we wouldn’t be the laughing stock of the world right now, because of this idiot president that y’all have.
And please believe me! I am not asleep, by no means. I know the cradle of the Confederacy is upset, but guess what? The cradle is crumbling because black lives matter!
Black lives mattered so much that in 1861 white men were willing to kill each other, for the black lives and the peculiar institution! Black lives mattered so much that somebody would sit down, after Reconstruction, they would sit down and come up with Jim Crow laws to keep us oppressed. Black lives mattered.
So what’s the matter? What’s the matter? When you ask people what’s the matter, the matter is that black lives are disproportionately marginalized, imprisoned, degraded, sodomized, mutilated—hung. Black lives matter.
Black lives matter so much that a white man would be willing to put on a cape, and hide his face—cowardly—and hang a man in the trees. All these hangings going on? You don’t think we know what’s happening?
This is all about joy—this is still all about joy. And the design for this was a design I did months ago. Months ago! And because we ran out of paint, Deborah Cedric came and said, why don’t we do this, and Milton said, Milton Madison, whose a gifted artist, both of these people are gifted artists, came and said why don’t we add a little patch here, and that hatched a design that I had already. And the reason why I’m saying this is because black folks came together! And we put our heads on how we are going to get this thing done.
Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed greets muralists at Courthouse Square. The square was the site of slave markets during the 19th century. The inaugural parade for Confederate President Jefferson Davis passed through the intersection and the telegram that started the Civil War was sent from a building adjacent to the square. (Photo: Kyle Sampson and I Am More Than.)
Can we not do it again in 2020. Can we not come again together to do this in 2020 to reclaim our spaces?
You can keep Jefferson Davis, if y’all want to! Keep him! Keep him! Keep James Marion Sims who raped and mutilated children, and then when they turned women he used them as subjects. Keep him! Because black lives matter downtown in Montgomery, Alabama!
And if the city decides that they want to cover it up, that’s fine! We’ll go buy us, we’ll go purchase our own property and put up our own black lives matter.
But I’m so grateful for what they did, we didn’t have to navigate the racist folks who was left in the administration to stop people from being creative and bringing life to our city. Have you all seen the light? We’re in the midst of Covid, and people are happy. You can see the smiles through the masks! Black joy!
Can I tell you something? Can I be honest? Can I be transparent? Let me tell you, when I first heard black lives matter, I looked at the organization, and I’m like, I’m not really into the whole thing. But I started listening to more and more people saying black lives mattered to me, it was changing this narrative and this mindset that we have been indoctrinated to think about black people! What is the matter with that?
We’ve been taught that we’re savages, that we don’t take care of our property, that we’re lazy. That we’re thieves, and murderers, and drug dealers. And niggers, and bitches, and hos. That’s the matter. Right? And now we have this positive affirmation that says, “I matter!” Black lives matter! We mean something. Our culture matters!
Why? Because black lives matter, with our culture. Without it, you don’t have Elvis! Without black lives matter, you don’t have Hank Williams! “I saw the light/Praise the lord/I saw the light.” Where do you think he got that from? Black lives that mattered.
White folks have taken everything that’s great about culture, from us. Apple pie, too. You better go talk to Uncle Ben! Black lives matter. We matter so much we’ll sell your watermelon skins, your pickaninny signs. Black people mattered so much that people actually too time to write laws to degrade us. And y’all mad because the people that built this city were black lives.
The only time black lives didn’t matter was when they were fallen out from picking cotton from sunup to sundown, and you find a hole to throw them in. But you wanted to protect your property, so that’s why we have the Confederacy right now today, because of your antebellum homes and nursing your babies, and raping the wenches, the negresses, when white women couldn’t give it up like a black woman could, they’d go out to the field to find them a black woman to have sex with. Black lives mattered.
So I’m just saying—I’m breaking my silence because a spirit of heaviness broke off of me because I was able to exercise my creativity in a positive manner that spoke to the ancestors who were the commerce along with King Cotton. White folks, y’all know that you weren’t goung out there to pick that there cotton. It took a whole day to take the seeds out of the cotton. Y’all know you ain’t got that kind of patience to do that. So you had to go and get you some black lives. Because they mattered.
Don’t tell me that we ain’t worth it. You ain’t no gifted nothing. Black lives matter! What’s the matter? So the next time you say, “What’s the matter? What’s the situation?” Black lives are still being destroyed by systemic racism. So all of you white folks, all my brothers and sisters, don’t get me wrong. I grew up with you—in my first community, right? Don’t get me wrong, but everybody wants to be educated. Everybody wants to know, how can we do better? Put on the glasses, honey. See it through a different perspective on how black lives mattered.
And we still matter. Still! Cause if you think about it, there’s nothing in the American culture that hasn’t been engrafted. You can’t go to a stoplight without a black life that mattered. You can’t iron your clothes without a black life that mattered. You cannot even turn on an air conditioner or have open heart surgery without a black life that mattered.
So now we have the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, where there is no peace and there is no justice. But because they’re putting it out there that there’s going to be peace and justice? Here’s your peace: When they open up, make sure you go out and support. And then you can see all of the black lives that mattered.
Businessmen that lost their lives—Elmore Bolling. Because he was a successful businessman. We see that happening today, with Island Delight, and how they’re trying to kill and black business that matters.
I just had to get this off my chest, because people don’t want to be associated, or they don’t want to say that this was an idea that God gave me. The Bible says, to write the vision, make it plain, and those that read it will read it and run with it. And that’s what happened. Those that saw it, read it, ran with it. Kevin King, ran with it. All of the artists that saw it? Ran with it.
So anytime y’all want to run around, the next time that somebody says, oh, my god, the cradle, all lives matter? No they don’t. Only your white lives matter. Because if all lives mattered, y’all would close Guantanamo Bay, or you would open up them those borders, or you would get those kids in cages—like you did with enslaved African gifted people…
If all lives really mattered…get out of here with that! Get out of here with that! All lives do matter! Except for black lives. So what’s the matter? Black folks are waking up to the greatness, that we matter, that we have a contribution outside of mass incarceration. We have a contribution other than nursing your children. The help? The help mattered. Black joy this morning! I am no longer depressed. And I know, there’s a big old target on my back.
I grew up with formerly incarcerated murderers, thieves, hookers. Y’all don’t scare me. Grew up with the KKK. Don’t scare me. So, with that being said, to the bougie black folks, when I find myself at your table, and you say I don’t belong there? Black lives matter. To the city folks who say, she’s too radical, she’s too this—I don’t care! My artwork? My ideas, my God-given ideas, to God be the glory? They matter. So many black children were so happy yesterday. And I will continue to say that we are not niggers, bitches, and hos. Because black lives matter. Without us, you’re nothing. So, with that being said, the spirit has left me. Thank you so much.
Michelle Browder is the founder of the youth non-profit I Am More Than and a history tour company that grew out of her non-profit work: More Than Tours. The company offers tours that reveal not only the well-known history of the civil rights movement in Montgomery, but the tunnels used by slave traders and the stones that once marked the city's water fountains "Colored" and "White." Another tour takes people to the city's new Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Truth and Justice.
Michelle Browder speaks. Thanks to our Video Editor, Leslie Ann Epperson.