It was a day 400 years in the making.
On August 5, 2023, a troop of Black bystanders walked, ran and swam to the defense of an African American riverboat co-captain. Called a “brawl” in both mainstream press and on social media platforms, the event was much more than a fight, more than a spectacle, and definitely not a free-for-all. The event that took place on a Montgomery dock of the Alabama River was a kind of reckoning. The defense of one Black man simply doing his job took place on one of the most infamous sites of human trafficking, child separation and torture, the historic portal to a kind of hell, where hundreds of thousands of enslaved African Americans landed when they were literally “sold down the river.”
As various media outlets have reported, Captain Damien Pickett was attacked by a group of white boaters who refused to move their pontoon so a city-owned riverboat, the Harriott II, could dock. As of press time, four of the white attackers have been charged by the Montgomery police for assaulting both Captain Pickett and the 16-year-old white deckhand who transported him. According to a report filed by his mother, the deckhand heard the attackers use the N-word as they beat Pickett.
The confrontation began when the white boaters refused to move their illegally docked pontoon, stranding the 227 passengers on the Harriott II for about 45 minutes. According to Shelly Eversley, interim chair of the Black and Latino Studies Department at Baruch College, their refusal to move framed her initial response to the event, as now-viral videos first began to populate her feed. Like many African Americans, Eversley says she “was struck by the impunity the white attackers seemed to possess as they (1) parked their boat in an unauthorized place, and (2) assaulted a Black man. Both are incredible indications of how white privilege functions.”
Eversley posits that the conflict seems to be about rights. “The white attackers seemed to believe they could dock their boat (break the law) and attack a man (break the law) without consequence. This sense of impunity, of freedom from punishment for breaking the rules helps inform how they understand the privileges associated with being white,” Eversley said. “What those white folks did not expect was that, in this contemporary moment, Black people are empowered to literally fight back. The viral moment is a moment of Black resistance.”
This “Black resistance” surfaced in a well of ancestral memory. The first moments of the video captured scenes not unlike the countless mob attacks, public lynchings and everyday assaults of Black bodies that invested the Montgomery attackers with white privilege in the first place. Their lawlessness and abandon are emblematic of the white supremacy that engenders white privilege. Their insistence that they literally take space that belongs to others evokes the theft of Indigenous land, and their violent physical assault of Captain Pickett evokes the brutalization of Black bodies through the contemporary Black Lives Matter era, the attacks on Black bodies through segregation and the failure of Reconstruction — all of which stem from the policing of Black bodies during the era of enslavement. Because of its location in Montgomery, Alabama, which was one of the largest internal slave ports in the U.S., it is impossible to view the so-called brawl as nothing short of an act of resistance meant to defy this centuries-long commitment to white brutality.
The phrase “they sold him down the river” is widely used to identify the victim of someone else’s wrongdoing, but the phrase originates in the domestic slave trade. For enslaved Black people, being “sold down the river” was a death sentence that remains so powerful in Black people’s ancestral memory, that the idiom was often expressed with great solemnity even when used as a turn of phrase as recently as the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Fueled by the demand for more enslaved Black people after the United States banned the importation of Africans in 1808, the domestic slave trade relied on the forced reproduction of Black bodies through rape and the sale of Black people at auction blocks located in the middle of the country, along the water systems of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and their tributaries.
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is a Montgomery-based organization committed to racial justice, criminal legal system reform, anti-poverty and public education through The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. According to the EJI’s 2018 report titled, “Slavery in America: The Montgomery Slave Trade”:
During the last twenty years of American slavery, no slave market was more central or conspicuous than the one in Montgomery, Alabama. Montgomery’s proximity to the fertile Black Belt region, where slave owners amassed large slave populations to work the fertile, rich soil, elevated Montgomery’s prominence in the slave trade. By 1860, Montgomery was the capital of the Domestic Slave Trade in Alabama, one of the two largest slave-owning states in America.
The report also documents the overwhelming significance of the Montgomery dock:
In 1820, 41,879 enslaved Black people lived in Alabama; by 1860, this number had increased tenfold to 435,080. Historians estimate that 70 percent of the new arrivals resulted from slave trading and 30 percent resulted from the relocation of white slaveholding families. In other words, at least 300,000 of the 435,080 enslaved people living in Alabama in 1860 were in the state as a result of the Domestic Slave Trade.
The EJI report documents the parade of enslaved Black people to containment facilities in Montgomery, the haunting wails of people whose children and other loved ones were sold away from them, the sexual exploitation of those captured, the torturous march to auction blocks miles away from the river, even the kidnapping of free Black people in the North who were “sold down the river” to auction blocks like the one in Montgomery. According to Anthony Browne, the former chair and an associate professor of the Department of Africana, Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Hunter College, “During enslavement, docks on Montgomery’s riverfront were sites of unimaginable Black suffering and humiliation.”
This violent history, which enriched Montgomery’s elite, informed the uprising against white brutality on August 5. “This area of Montgomery was an entry point for the internal slave trade and as many as 400,000 African descendent/Black people disembarked there as a part of the chattel slavery system that drove the economy of the nation, this region, and created the backbone of America’s wealth,” says Merle McGee, a nonprofit leader with more than 25 years of experience doing racial justice, equity and gender justice work. “From this dock location, enslaved people were marched along and placed in slave depots that line Commerce Street, where they waited to be sold at what is now a fountain,” she adds. This aptly named street slaps the face of every Black person dispossessed of their own wealth-building potential due to theft sanctioned by law and normalized by custom. Indeed, the ornate ironwork and beautiful architecture of Montgomery are sturdy testimonies to the resilience of Black people who literally built this country’s wealth.
A co-founder of The BIPOC Project, an organization that provides resources and gatherings to help undo Native invisibility, anti-Blackness and white supremacy, McGee had recently traveled to Montgomery before the August 5 uprising to learn more about the reproductive violence perpetrated against enslaved women. “Montgomery is where slaveholder J. Marion Sims operated a hospital in the city where he performed experimental surgeries without anesthesia on enslaved women (Betsey, Anarcha and Lucy) and developed gynecological instruments still in use today,” McGee points out. The Mothers of Gynecology monument documents the experiences of just three enslaved Black women whose bodies were tortured — and whose torturer continues to be revered. Sims is considered the father of modern gynecology, but he was actually a slave owner, invested in the trafficking of human flesh, which he sliced and experimented on to gain not only financial wealth, but social currency so rich that there still are statues in his honor in places like Columbia, South Carolina, and, until it was moved to New York City’s Green-Wood Cemetery in response to public protests led by Black women, New York City’s Central Park.
Certainly, none of the Black people who rose up in defense of Captain Pickett on August 5 were consciously thinking of Sims, internal slave-trading routes, or the exploitation of Black people to create white wealth, but these realities help shape the ancestral memory of African Americans. “Black ancestral memory and the continuing linked fates of Black people compelled those who witnessed the assault on the co-captain to honor the sacrifices of their ancestors by collectively fighting back and reaffirming their commitment to live in dignity,” Browne says.
A member of the Association of Black Sociologists, Browne adds, “Given that the victimization of so many Black people has been captured on heartrending videos as they suffered alone, often with fatal consequences, the conflict in Alabama represented a gratifying change as Black people collectively fought back against the forces of white supremacy. The Alabama incident also occurred against the backdrop of a Trump rally that took place in the city the day before, as well as major Black losses including rollbacks of civil rights legislation by the Supreme Court and the banning of African American Studies in a number of states. As such, for many Black folk around the country, the Alabama conflict provided a thrilling experience of Black people fighting back and winning against the forces of anti-Blackness.”
Eversley notes how the violences of slavery and state-sanctioned white supremacy manifest in our contemporary culture. “For instance, the scene of a mob of white people attacking a single Black man is as iconic to the history of the United States as it is to our contemporary culture. For some, the repetition of this violent anti-Black imagery empowers logics of white supremacy. For others, the repetition is the reminder that the sins of the past still require resolution and repair.”
Montgomery has a long history of resistance, with the Montgomery Bus Boycott as perhaps the most iconic example. Yet, because there has been no repair in the form of reparations, much less a complete disinvestment from white supremacy, Alabama remains a state emblematic of hate. Witnessed in abysmal state statistics are the centuries-old consequences of perpetual marginalization of Black people, in various iterations and through time, from enslavement to segregation to mass incarceration. Alabama is one of the poorest states in the U.S. Its literacy rates are among the lowest in the country. It has some of the strictest laws limiting reproductive rights, and it has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. As Eversley points out, “All of these things point to a state that does not value equality, opportunity or human rights.”
Browne adds, “Anti-Blackness remains pervasive in the U.S., and Alabama is a microcosm of the larger society where Black people are subject to ongoing disregard for their civil and human rights.”
The site of the uprising of support for one Black man in Montgomery has everything to do with the 400-year project to dehumanize Black people in the most heinous acts of self-aggrandizement and parasitic exploitation. Even the name of the riverboat traces a line directly back to the enslavement of Black people. The Harriott II is named after the original Harriott, which, in 1821, became the first riverboat to go from Mobile, Alabama, to Montgomery to pick up a shipment of cotton.
“History and place matter. Both shape our understanding of who we have been, who we are and how the past and its unresolved ghosts signal how we treat one another in the present,” McGee says. “This is especially the case as people witness this incident and grapple with why the family who wrongfully docked in the location felt compelled to dispute their ability to be there and physically attack a man, a Black man holding them accountable.”