Forcing us to reckon with the past, America's first lynching memorial and museum opens in Alabama
Though it may go against our baser instincts, it is a fact that many things can be true at once. On one hand, the United States is surely a country of promise and hope—a place where luck, hard work, and determination are sometimes enough to bring success to even the most marginalized person. But it is also a land steeped in injustice and inequality—where past wrongdoings and the collective silence and ignorance about them allow us to have a false and incomplete view of history and the present.
If we as Americans, and those who live here, are ever going to truly understand this country, we must bear witness to and atone for the past. That is the intent behind the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice that opens on Thursday. Located in Montgomery, Alabama, it contains a legacy museum and memorial to the black victims of lynchings and racial terror in the United States.
As The New York Times aptly describes, there is nothing like it in the United States. And this is a very transformative and powerful thing.
“Just seeing the names of all these people,” said Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit organization behind the memorial. Many of them, he said, “have never been named in public.” [...]
Inspired by the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, Mr. Stevenson decided that a single memorial was the most powerful way to give a sense of the scale of the bloodshed. But also at the site are duplicates of each steel column, lined up in rows like coffins, intended to be disseminated around the country to the counties where lynchings were carried out. People in these counties can request them — dozens of such requests have already been made — but they must show that they have made efforts locally to “address racial and economic injustice.”
For Mr. Stevenson, the plans for the memorial and an accompanying museum were rooted in decades spent in Alabama courtrooms, witnessing a criminal justice system that treats African-Americans with particular cruelty, or indifference.
A museum and memorial, on their own, aren’t enough to help America do the work of addressing its original sin of white supremacy—which is responsible for racial terror directed not just at blacks, but at the country’s indigenous population and many other racial and ethnic minority groups. But they offer a chance for bearing witness to the specific history of black people in this country and its impact on the present. They are intended to begin a dialogue so that we can acknowledge the trauma and brutality of enslavement, racial terror lynchings, and mass incarceration. They are meant to be sites for collective grief so that we can begin to heal wounds that are centuries deep. This is important for the descendants of lynching victims and black people in general, but it’s equally important for whites.
According to Stevenson, the United States is the most punitive country on the planet. Evidence of that can be seen in our mass incarceration rates which are the highest in the world. Thus, he says that it is a fear of punishment that stops us from apologizing and reckoning with our terrible past.