The Lynching Memorial & Legacy Museum

     I had never been to Montgomery, Alabama but I went recently to bear witness to a profound and important new monument. Bryan Stevenson is a human rights lawyer who has spent his entire career trying to bring justice to the wrongfully convicted and he wants to free more than one man at a time: he wants to awaken the entire country to the continuing evils of racism, to the way in which slavery has never ended but only evolved.

      Last year, I read Stevenson’s powerful bestselling book Just Mercy, and then I had the privilege of hearing him speak (listening to his riveting 2012 TED talk will give you a good taste). When I read in a New Yorker profile that he was about to open a memorial to the victims of lynching in this country, I felt both squeamish and curious. Why do this? And how? 

      I decided I wanted to see it with my own eyes, and although I’m not a professional activist, I decided to attend the 2-day conference on civil rights that Stevenson’s organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, was going to hold in Montgomery the same weekend the memorial opened to the public. 

        What I saw on a hilltop in Montgomery was a sacred site, brilliantly conceived as a way to feel the true weight of a terrible history. There is a blunt spareness to the memorial and a disconcerting dissonance when you enter: the sides are open to the surrounding greenery and city views in the distance, but inside, you feel claustrophobic. You are surrounded by rows of heavy, metal boxes the size of coffins standing upright. Each monument represents a county in the United States where the staff of EJI documented at least one lynching: there are 805 of these death boxes. 

       Inscribed on each monument, carved into the metal, are the names of those lynched and the dates. There might be just one name carved into the metal, or dozens. Some have a date but the name is “Unknown.” The day I went, there was a somber silence as I walked, though there were many people there. At first, I tried to say every name to myself but after several hundred, it became overwhelming. Altogether, there are 4,400 lynchings documented here. As you may have heard or seen in the press coverage, as one turns a corner inside the memorial, the heavy monuments are placed very differently: hung up overhead, like lifeless bodies. This feels ominous in a different way: all that weight, so much heaviness. 

        When you walk through the corridor under these massive memorials, you observe signs on the wooden walls to the left and right listing some of the given reasons why specific people were hanged. One woman was lynched because she protested the lynching of her husband. An unnamed black man was lynched in Millersburg, Ohio in 1892 for “standing around” in a white neighborhood. Fred Alexander, a military veteran, was lynched and burned alive before thousands of spectators in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1901.

 

       

 

 

        There are some (necessarily) wordy plaques as one walks toward the memorial that explain the history that inspired this cathartic structure. But once inside, verbiage is kept to a minimum. The words below honor the victims and suggest how we should move forward in their names. 

 

           After the blazing words above, you turn another corner and find a calming sight: sheets of cooling water cascade down a long, wooden wall. And in front of that wall sits a clear plexiglas box shaped like a coffin and filled with dirt from several dozen sites where lynchings occurred. The day I was there, a bouquet of white roses had been placed on top of the box of dirt and I was able to take this photo reflecting the bright sky outside. I walked out feeling like I had attended the memorial service after a massive, senseless terrorist attack: so many victims, no words. 


 

       And then there is more: a brilliant touch that I didn’t understand immediately. When you walk away from the memorial building, you find yourself in a sort of courtyard space filled with rows and rows of the memorial boxes. It turns out there are 805 of them, a copy for every single documented county: local officials are invited to take these home because real healing can’t happen unless these stories are also memorialized in the specific places where the lynchings occurred. The idea is that as these duplicate memorials are claimed and removed, this courtyard space will be transformed into a lush garden. (You can watch a TED talk with designer Michael Murphy, who says his chosen path as an architect is to create “buildings that heal.” The Montgomery memorial is in the last third of his talk.)

       Bryan Stevenson talks about how other countries that endured brutal attempts to exterminate an entire tribe or religion have come to grips with those evils. There were Truth and Reconciliation commissions. Memorials and museums were built in Germany, Rwanda, South Africa and elsewhere. Slavery and systemic racism are America’s Holocaust as far as Stevenson is concerned, and he believes we’ll never truly be the free and fair country our founding fathers promised until we face these evils. 

       So Stevenson didn’t stop with the memorial to lynching victims. He also wanted to make the case that he’s assembled through years of working in a broken justice system about how slavery morphed into Jim Crow racism after the Civil War and then into lynching and eventually into our current biased system of mass incarceration. The meticulous research that made the lynching memorial possible, the same persistence that has helped him exonerate more than 100 wrongfully convicted people through the courts, is also very evident in the compact museum Stevenson built in downtown Montgomery (photo below). An enormous amount of harrowing information is packed into this small museum, in a former warehouse that housed slaves (and livestock) before they were auctioned off. I’m not going to give a detailed review now because I think the lynching memorial is the more powerful draw and I’ll assume that if you travel to Montgomery, you’ll see both. Montgomery is one of the most rewarding stops on the brand new U.S. Civil Rights trail that goes through 14 states. I hope I’ve convinced you to go!

 

 

          I have to close with this: one of the most powerful proofs of Brian Stevenson’s arguments about our biased justice system is one of his clients, Anthony Ray Hinton. Born poor and black in Alabama, Hinton served 30 years on Death Row for murders he didn’t commit and Stevenson had to argue his case all the way to the Supreme Court (where it was unanimous). Free since 2015, Hinton has become a passionate advocate for prison reform and recently released a memoir. After hearing him speak at EJI’s conference, I had the privilege of meeting Ray Hinton, literally in the street, and I have now read his book, The Sun Does Shine. I recommend it with all my heart: it made me cry, but gave me hope. (It also made me laugh: Hinton talks about how a terrific imagination helped him survive Death Row. For example, he pretended for 15 years that he was married to Halle Berry. He also had vivid fantasies of visiting Queen Elizabeth, and now he has, for real.)

Comments

  1. I have heard Bryan Stevenson speak and found him to be so compelling. Whenever there are stories of the police being called for ridiculous reasons like not playing golf fast enough while black, moving into an apartment while black, holding a toy gun and being killed while black, I think of the horrible history of lynching.
    As white people, we have to stand up when we see these injustices. Our history is fatally intwined with enslaving people, American natives and enslaved Africans. The memorial sounds like a must see for all U.S.A. Citizens. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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