The founders of a new museum and memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, are looking to change the popular narrative about race and American history by examining the traumas of slavery and their connection to the present.
April 26 marks the opening of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which are dedicated to showing the horrors inflicted on black Americans in the generations since slavery. They are the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based group that provides legal services to people who have been wrongfully convicted or face other issues in the criminal justice system.
The museum and memorial are “an act of ending silence and committing to truth and reconciliation,” says Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the group. They were directly inspired by the Apartheid Museum in South Africa and the Holocaust Memorial in Germany.
The group established the buildings on land where a slave warehouse once stood to point to the fact that the legacy of slavery continues to affect the present.
“Enslaved people were promised freedom, and what they got was terrorism. During the era of lynching, black people were promised security, but what they got was humiliation and segregation,” Stevenson says. “We were promised equality and voting rights in the 1960s, and what we got was mass incarceration and criminalization.”
As Stevenson sees it, the EJI project not only seeks to call out America’s failure to reckon with its history, but offers a space for confession and recognition of past wrongs. He’s hopeful that it will help the country move down the path toward a better future.
The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice turn the spotlight on America’s racist past
The new museum and memorial frame slavery as part of a greater illness, a factor that was left untreated and then festered and spread across the US, weakening it further. And what has festered and spread for generations in America is the idea of racial difference and white supremacy.
If slavery is the root of the illness that is white supremacy, then lynchings — brutal extrajudicial murders of black men and women used as a form of social control — are one of its more troubling symptoms. The EJI has researched lynchings for years, publishing a report in 2015 that documented more than 4,000 lynchings in America between 1877 and 1950, far more than had been previously documented. The group continues to uncover additional lynchings in its research.
In addition to sections looking at the selling of slaves in America and the connections between slavery and mass incarceration, the memorial and museum put an especially strong focus on honoring lynching victims, recognizing a nearly 80-year campaign of racial terrorism and trauma.
A particularly striking section of the Memorial for Peace and Justice contains some 800 suspended steel monuments engraved with the dates of various lynchings and the names of victims, remembering people like Mary Turner, a pregnant Georgia woman hung from a tree and set on fire by a mob in 1918 after she protested the lynching of her husband. Turner was still alive when her unborn child was cut out of her and trampled.
The lynching memorial, like other parts of the Alabama museum and memorial effort, will also provide an opportunity for reflection. The Memorial for Peace and Justice will allow local governments to take home full-size replicas of the lynching monuments that honor people killed in their localities, expanding the lynching memorial across the country.
As counties begin to claim their monuments, “the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not,” the group writes on its website.
The memorial seeks to tell a more honest story of race in America
The opening of the new memorial and museum comes as America continues to debate how best to remember its history. Last summer, white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a monument of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a monument that, as Vox’s Jane Coaston notes, was dedicated some 59 years after the Civil War actually ended.
In the months since Charlottesville, President Trump has argued that the removal of Confederate statues amounted to “changing history,” as members of his Cabinet and other political appointees continue to speak of the Civil War in ways that show a limited understanding of what happened.
In short, we’re living in a particular political moment that makes the museum and memorial openings even more significant.
Stevenson said he hopes visitors to the museum will use their journey to Alabama as a time of reflection — and an opportunity to better understand ongoing struggles for justice driven by groups like the Movement for Black Lives.
“I believe that when we understand this history more carefully, you begin to appreciate protest, you begin to appreciate truth-telling, not as something that makes us weak but [as] the only thing that makes us strong,” Stevenson says. “I want us to achieve something that feels more like freedom.”