The new National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama on April 26, 2018. It stands as a reminder of the many acts of discrimination against African Americans over the course of American history, and in particular memorializes over 4400 documented lynchings that occurred between 1877 and 1950.
800 rectangular iron blocks hang several layers deep in rows around a square. Each block contains the name of a county and state where lynching occurred, as well as the names of the victims and the dates they were lynched. Some contain the name of just one victim, others contain dozens.
My husband, son, and I visited the memorial last week. The monument looms large atop an elevated earth mound. We walked past a sculpture of life-sized bronze figures in chains, and up the path from the entrance. The wall to our right got shorter as we climbed to the level of the memorial.
We should have been climbing out of slavery and into freedom, but instead were confronted by the sea of iron blocks. The first ones we approached were set on the ground. At six feet tall, they approximate the height of a person. At the next corner of the monument, a path leads downward.
The blocks in the first row are marked with counties in Alabama, each deeper row listing counties in other states and their victims. We couldn’t figure out how the inscriptions are ordered, so we asked one of the guards. He explained the blocks are arranged alphabetically by state and county in a spiral that starts in the outside row, goes all the way around the square, and then continues through each successive row ending with the most interior blocks.
As we walked downward, the blocks became suspended from iron poles. By the time we reached the bottom, they loomed above us, eerily echoing the hanging victims they document.
On either side of this below-ground passage, signs describe the circumstances in which people were lynched—for frightening a white child, or asking a white man for money they were owed, or for “standing around” in a white neighborhood.
On the lawn outside the monument, we walked by a second set of blocks, twins of the ones hanging in the memorial. Laid on their side as they are, they resemble coffins. The intent is for counties to claim the block with their name on it and to each set up their own memorial site. Over time, as such monuments proliferate, more and more gaps will appear in the blocks resting on the lawn. In effect, the memorial will become a network of sites mapping the places where lynching occurred.
Clearly, parallels can be made between the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and sites throughout the world memorializing the Holocaust. Rather than commemorating moments of national pride, they compel us to remember our failures. It doesn’t matter that I wasn’t born when these events took place. I’m an American, and proud to be one. And it is because of that sense of connection to my nation that I feel a sense of responsibility for what happened in my country, for the injustices that Americans perpetrated against other Americans. Even if I weren’t American, if it weren’t a failing of my nation, of people with whom I share a national affiliation, I would feel guilty—as a human being. Like I feel guilty that the Holocaust ever happened. It was a failure of humanity, of empathy that is only conceivable in its monumental horror because it actually occurred.
That’s not the entire truth. The fact is that, as a person of Jewish descent, I identify with the group that was victimized in the Holocaust. As a person of European descent, however, my group was responsible for the victimization of people of African descent. This shift in perception, from victim to victimizer, is a difficult one.
And the harm caused by racial bias and discrimination continues.
Several blocks from the Peace and Justice Memorial, the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum further highlights racial injustice in the United States. One exhibition has left me with a nagging feeling of distress, maybe because of uneasy associations with current conflicts about the highest courts in both the US and in Poland.
A single illuminated display summarizes all of the US Supreme Court’s rulings that address racial justice issues. Alongside the decisions most often discussed and celebrated, like expanding the right to vote and defending equal access to education, are many more that maintained or reinstitutionalized discriminatory practices. I didn’t know how complicit the Supreme Court has been in perpetuating injustice, but there it was made visible right in front of me.
For a brief period right after the Civil War, African Americans gained the right to vote and were elected into political offices. But then, Jim Crow laws imposed poll taxes and literacy tests that kept them from voting, and enforced segregation in businesses, buses, and public institutions. With one decision after another, the Supreme Court upheld such discriminatory practices, and whittled away at the rights of freed people of color. The 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling, in which the Supreme Court defended the constitutionality of segregation as long as African Americans had “separate but equal” facilities, is only the most well-known of many decisions upholding segregation and discrimination.
We like to see ourselves in a positive light. We identify more with Brown vs. The Board of Education than we do with Plessy vs. Ferguson. We celebrate the Civil Rights Movement, but shy away from a deeper acknowledgement of the harm inflicted by slavery, discrimination, and deeply entrenched biases. There is still a lot we need to come to terms with. I’m glad to see this new museum and memorial taking steps in that direction, and that they are in my adopted state of Alabama.