Facing history with courage at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

December 13, 2022

During our November road trip from Asheville to Austin, we stopped in Montgomery, Alabama to visit the remarkable National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The outdoor pavilion dedicated to the 4,000+ black lynching victims wraps around a hilltop overlooking downtown Montgomery, where Confederate President Jefferson Davis is still honored with a statue in front of the state capitol building. I read about the memorial, which opened in 2018 The New York Times, which declared, “There is nothing like it in the country. Which is the point.”

The memorial is stark and incredibly powerful, and it reminds me of the monotonous, chiseled simplicity of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. 1877 to 1950.

The seven decades when lynchings terrorized Black Americans are only part of the terrible legacy of slavery in the United States, which we its citizens carry to this day. It’s fitting that the memorial is located in Montgomery, where the Confederacy inaugurated its president and where, 100 years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. led the march for suffrage from Selma.

Information sign at the memorial

Why build — or visit — a monument that reminds us of the evil that man inflicts on man? The Equal Justice Initiative — the Montgomery-based nonprofit that created the memorial — explains:

“EJI believes that publicly facing the truth about our history is the first step to recovery and reconciliation.

A history of racial injustice must be acknowledged before a society can recover from mass violence, and genocide and abuse must be recognized and remembered. Public commemoration plays an important role in fostering community-wide reconciliation.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice provides a sacred space for truth-telling and reflection about ethnic terrorism and its legacy.

The memorial structure consists of a square, open-air pavilion containing 800 Corten steel slabs—one for each U.S. county where a documented lynching took place. On each slab, under the county and state, are engraved the names of the murdered and their dates of death.

Yes that’s it. Names of men, women and children. when they were killed. And where. As you enter the memorial, the upright monuments resemble cemetery headstones. I bet most visitors find out the counties they live in, like I did. I grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina and was shocked to find its county slab inscribed top to bottom with 15 names. Two women are remembered for beating nine people to death during a week-long vigilante massacre known as the Phoenix Election Riot in November 1898.

As you walk between the monuments, the floor will begin to slope downwards. Steel slabs are on the main level, suspended from metal poles. The effect is that the 6-foot tall blocks appear as if they are being lifted. Lights set in boxes on the floor illuminate the slabs after dark.

Monuments hang overhead as you descend into the memorial. To read the names, you are forced to look at the postures of bloodthirsty criminals, grimacing witnesses and grieving mourners.

The monuments are lined up like an orderly forest. Their engraved names give an idea of ​​the enormity of this gruesome history. On the walls, plaques listlessly detail some of the alleged crimes for which blacks were killed, including “Suing a White Man for Killing His Cow” and “Using Indecent Language to a White Woman.” A man was beaten by the association, “a mob seeking his brother.”

Confronting our nation’s history of lynching is emotionally difficult. But the victims—silenced without due process, justice, or sometimes even the dignity of being named in the public record—deserve to be remembered.

A dedication is written on one wall:

For hanging and beating.

For shots, drown, burn.

For the oppressed, tormented and terrified.

For those abandoned by the rule of law.

we will remember

With hope because despair is the enemy of justice.

With courage because peace requires courage.

Persevere because justice is a constant struggle.

With faith we will overcome.

At the center, called Memorial Square — an unfolding of the public square and courthouse lawns where justice was perverted and victims terrorized — you are surrounded by their names on monuments.

Outside the memorial building, lined like coffins, are replicas of the carved monuments, one for each county. The Equal Justice Initiative hopes that representatives from each county will claim their marker, bring it home to commemorate local lynching victims and “foster meaningful dialogue about race and justice.”

On the basis of which monuments are claimed and which are not, viewers can judge for themselves whether progress is being made in acknowledging ethnic terrorism.

The 6-acre memorial site also displays various works of sculpture, including lift up By Hank Willis Thomas. Ten bronze figures fixed in concrete, arms raised, lined up as if facing the barrel of a gun and chanting “Hands where I can see them!” shouted.

A few blocks away, The Legacy Museum – an accompanying project of the memorial – offers visitors another challenging but eye-opening experience. Visitors are not allowed to take photos inside the museum, but it is a richly visual and sensory journey through the exhibits.

A Maya Angelou quote on the museum’s exterior offers hope for us all: “History, despite its agonizing pain, cannot survive, but if bravely faced, need not live again.” If you have a chance to visit Montgomery, be brave and go see it.

Next up are my final posts about our Southeast road trip: a 2-part visit to the Shangri-La Botanical Garden and Nature Center in Orange, Texas. For a look back at our visit to Chimney Rock near Asheville, click here.

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All material © 2022 by Pam Penick for Excavation. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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