A visit to Montgomery’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice brings sadness, hope and a call to local action
“Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape,” EJI Director Bryan Stevenson explains. “This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”
The rain that falls the morning of the opening of the The National Memorial for Peace and Justice feels appropriate. I have driven to Montgomery, Alabama, to witness the opening of spaces dedicated to lifting up the truth of racism in this country, to participate in shared learning of the past, and to glimpse what the future might hold.
As I walk toward the open-air monument, situated on a grass-green hill, I come upon a sculptural group of seven figures. Life-size, dark, and wet with rain they struggle in their chains. Men, women, and a babe in arms remind us in heart-wrenching directness of the brutality of slavery. An eighth shackle sits empty on the ground, representing the human being just recently sold. This powerful work is the creation of Ghanaian sculptor Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, who would not be present for the opening of the memorial as his visa application had been denied.
The edges of the site are populated with additional sculptures, depicting the women who led the Montgomery bus boycott and a work that speaks directly to current episodes of police brutality. There are also text panels that mark the journey toward the central monument, ensuring that while the visitor is emotionally drawn in, we are also being informed of history’s facts. And this is one of the most important aspects of this remarkable place: It hits your heart and your head.
At the center of the six-acre site is the memorial square with eight-hundred six-foot monuments of corten steel that hold the names of more than four thousand victims of racial terror lynching. Each pillar represents a single county, some containing one name and some with a list of those killed etched from top to bottom. Occasionally, there is the word “unknown.”
As I enter the space, I am reminded of the unparalleled efforts of the EJI to document this dark history. Amid the other important work of the organization, Bryan Stephenson and his team began the systematic documentation of thousands of lynchings in 2010. The resulting report “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror” not only shines light on racial terror lynchings, but also reveals the ripple effects of this trauma on individual lives and the nation as a whole.
I am now sharing the space with hundreds of other visitors, walking quietly amongst the steel pillars. The pillars first stand upright, almost exactly my height. Then floor begins to sink … or more accurately the memorial pillars begin to rise. The wooden floor becomes a ramp, subtly coaxing me further into and below the collection of names. The effect of these heavy columns now hanging above the ground and eventually above me is chilling, truly devastating.
I become very aware of the communal nature of this moment. Some groups of people are loudly talking, others pointing to the pillars above them, some standing silently. I become uncomfortable with the parallels to the historic scenes of people gathering to directly partake in the awful act or become a part of the spectacle by bringing their children and a picnic to watch a black woman, man, or child die at the hands of their white neighbors. There is documentation of such scenes swelling to over ten-thousand people. These were more than killings, they were for public consumption. And this is why reconciliation will also require something very public.
I start to focus on finding the column for Duval County. When I finally locate it, the floor is now at its lowest point. The metal slab is unadorned like the rest, except for the seven references to those who died by racial terror lynching in my hometown. Bowman Cook and John Morine were both lynched in Duval County in 1919. Benjamin Hart, Edgar Phillips, and Eugene Burna died on three different days in 1923. There are two whose names are still unknown, lynched here in 1909 and 1925. Until the months leading up the opening of this memorial I did not know. I was not taught. I had not seen.
On gravel paths in the adjacent green lawn are identical casts of each pillar. These do not sit upright or hang above, but are instead laid out, coffin like, waiting to be claimed. These are the components of the memorial that will soon live in hundreds of communities, large and small, throughout the South and beyond.
Each county has the ability to claim this part of the monument as part of a process of reconciliation and atonement. Although there are unique aspects to each place that chooses to tell this truth, there are steps that have been well defined by EJI. Doing additional localized research to deepen the work of EJI is one step. Another is to identify any descendants or other individuals that are inextricably bound to the people who lost their lives. Soil is collected from each lynching site, as an act of remembrance and reverence, but also to add to the soils collected for the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. Historic markers are erected to document, in a public space, the narrative of the lynching. Then the memorial pillar that now lies waiting in Montgomery can be claimed. Only after the community learns from this past and is ready to accept its truths can the monument come home.
By Hope McMath
Photos Courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative / Human Pictures