“Alabama’s the Confederacy,” Fran Liebowitz said on Real Time last year, correcting Bill Maher’s assertion that it was the heartland. Its long association with slavery, racism, and pedophilic Senate candidates will take a long time to shake. Its current governor, Kay Ivey, signed the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017, which requires local towns who want to remove Confederate monuments to get permission from the government first, and this week, they celebrated Confederate Memorial Day.
All this would appear to indicate that the state is hopeless to correct its past mistakes, but yesterday it made a huge step towards correcting its past when it officially opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial dedicated to the many victims of lynching in the United States, as well as a companion museum, Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.
Located across from the Montgomery State Capitol, the memorial reflects Berlin’s Holocaust Museum, which is situated across from the German parliament. That museum’s entrance is hidden amidst a large outdoor exhibition of grey columns. Having walked through them myself, the columns are highly disorienting, as they start off looking no bigger then square stumps, but the further you descend the entrance, the larger they grow until they have completely dwarfed you.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice offers a similar experience. As you enter, you see low-hanging columns, each representing a different US county and listing all the people who were lynched there. But like the Holocaust Museum, as you walk further in, the higher the columns hang above you. Eventually, you look at them as whites might have gathered to look at hanging bodies during one of those picnics James Baldwin depicted in his short story, “Going to Meet the Man.” Areas to the side inform visitors of the circumstances under which these particular victims died.
The Legacy Museum is dedicated to the direct line between slavery, lynching, and mass incarceration, as depicted in Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated documentary 13th (Ms. DuVernay is scheduled to appear at one of the museum’s launch events.) It is housed in a building that was once a slave warehouse. There, visitors can view multimedia exhibits allowing wrongfully accused black men to tell their stories. Lest it should end on a hopeless note, the Legacy Museum also includes a section devoted to what you can do next, with voter registration kiosks and information on how to volunteer for Civil Rights causes.
The project itself is the product of the Equal Justice Initiative, headed by Bryan Stevenson. The EJI has spent years documenting lynching cases, as well as offering legal services to incarcerated black men and women. Stevenson, the group’s founder, also serves as the memorial’s tour guide.
“I believe in truth and reconciliation,” Mr. Stevenson said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “and we haven’t been truthful about our history of racial inequality. You’ve got to first tell the truth about what happened and then you can begin to understand what is required to recover, to make repairs, to restore, to reconcile. And I don’t want to deny any county in America that has a history of lynching an opportunity to localize this project, this effort.”
To achieve that end, the Memorial also houses duplicate columns that counties can elect to put on display, provided that they have made the efforts to grapple with their own complicity in racial inequality.
Stevenson believes in redemption: “If I believe that each of us is more than the worst thing he’s ever done,” he has said, “I have to believe that for everybody.” But that redemption cannot come without facing down one’s actions, resolving to do better in the future.
To that end, the Montgomery Advertiser, a newspaper that has been in circulation since 1829, ran this striking front-page cover story yesterday:
The cover lists the names of more than 300 lynching victims, followed by an editorial acknowledging the paper’s complicity in not reporting on these killings properly.
“The Advertiser was careless in how it covered mob violence and the terror foisted upon African-Americans,” it says:
“We dehumanized human beings. Too often we characterized lynching victims as guilty before proven so and often assumed they committed the crime…
“Part of our responsibility as the press is to explore who we are, how we live together and analyze what impacts us. We are supposed to hold people accountable for their wrongs, and not with a wink and a nod. We went along with the 19th- and early 20th-century lies that African-Americans were inferior. We propagated a world view rooted in racism and the sickening myth of racial superiority.”
Alabama may still be plagued with racial strife, a cancer it will take generations to fully expunge. But this is the beginning of a long-overdue reconciliation as Americans finally acknowledge the heart of darkness that we cannot ignore any longer.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.