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

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 open-air pavilion defended to 4,000 Black victims of lynching wraps a hilltop overlooking downtown Montgomery, near where Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, is still honored with a statue in front of the state capitol building. I’d read well-nigh the memorial, which opened in 2018, in the New York Times, which declared, “There is nothing like it in the country. Which is the point.”

The memorial is somber and incredibly powerful, and it reminded me in its monolithic, inscribed simplicity of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. It demands of visitors a clear-eyed reckoning with an era of vigilante racial terror in our country during the period from 1877 to 1950.

Those seven decades when lynchings terrorized Black Americans are only a portion of the terrible legacy of slavery in the U.S., which we its citizens protract to grapple with today. 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 voting rights from Selma.

Informational sign at the memorial

Why build — or visit — a memorial that reminds us of evils that humans visit upon other humans? The Equal Justice Initiative, the Montgomery-based nonprofit organization that created the memorial, explains:

“EJI believes that publicly confronting the truth well-nigh our history is the first step towards recovery and reconciliation.

A history of racial injustice must be acknowledged, and mass atrocities and vituperate must be recognized and remembered, surpassing a society can recover from mass violence. Public sacrament plays a significant role in prompting community-wide reconciliation.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice provides a sacred space for truth-telling and reflection well-nigh racial terrorism and its legacy.”

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

Just that. Names of men, women, and children. When they were killed. And where. The upright monuments resemble cemetery headstones as you enter the memorial. I’d bet that most visitors search out the counties where they’ve lived, as I did. I grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina, and was unsatisfied to find its county’s slab engraved top to marrow with 15 names. Two women are memorialized, as are nine people lynched during a week-long massacre in November 1898 known as the Phoenix Election Riot.

As you walk among the monuments, the floor begins to slope downward. The steel slabs remain at the original level, suspended from metal poles. The effect is that the 6-foot-tall blocks squint as if they are stuff hoisted. Lights set in boxes on the floor illuminate the slabs without dark.

As you descend into the memorial, the monuments hang overhead. To read the names, you’re forced to squint up, in an reverberate of the postures of the vulturous perpetrators, gawking witnesses, and traumatized bereaved.

The monuments line up like an orderly forest. Their inscribed names provide a sense of the magnitude of this harrowing history. On the walls, plaques tonelessly detail some of the so-called offenses for which Black victims were killed, including “suing the white man who killed his cow” and “using inappropriate language with a white woman.” One person was lynched by association, “by a mob searching for her brother.”

Facing up to our nation’s history of lynching is emotionally difficult. But the victims — silenced without due process, justice, or sometimes plane the nobility of stuff named in public records — deserve remembrance.

A dedication on one wall reads:

For the hanged and beaten.

For the shot, drowned, and burned.

For the tortured, tormented, and terrorized.

For those x-rated by the rule of law.

We will remember.

With hope considering hopelessness is the enemy of justice.

With valiance considering peace requires bravery.

With persistence considering justice is a unvarying struggle.

With faith considering we shall overcome.

In the center, in what’s tabbed Memorial Square — an evocation of the public squares and courthouse lawns where justice was subverted and victims terrorized — you’re surrounded by the names on their monuments.

Outside the memorial building, lined up like coffins, lie duplicates of the engraved monuments, one for each county. The Equal Justice Initiative hopes that representatives from each county will requirement their marker, bringing it home to memorialize local lynching victims and “foster meaningful dialogue well-nigh race and justice.”

Visitors can judge for themselves, based on which monuments have been personal and which have not, whether progress in supporting racial terror is stuff made.

The 6-acre memorial site moreover displays several works of sculpture, including Raise Up by Hank Willis Thomas. Ten statue figures immobilized in concrete, with stovepipe raised, are lined up as if facing gun barrels and shouts of “Hands where I can see them!”

A couple of blocks away, The Legacy Museum — an twin project to the memorial — offers flipside challenging but eye-opening wits for visitors. Visitors are not unliable to take photos inside the museum, but it’s a richly visual and sensory journey through the exhibits.

A Maya Angelou quote on the museum’s exterior offers a gleam of hope for us all: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” If you have an opportunity to visit Montgomery, be mettlesome and go see it.

My final posts well-nigh our Southeast road trip are up next: A 2-part visit to Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center in Orange, Texas. For a squint when at our visit to Chimney Rock near Asheville, click here.

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