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On a Hill in Alabama, the Lynched Haunt Us

The new museum and memorial in Montgomery are exactly the remembrance America needs

Part of a sculpture by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo on the grounds of the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

Audra Melton/The New York Times/Redux

Drive along Interstate 65 in central Alabama between Birmingham and Montgomery, you can’t miss it. Some folks who call themselves the Sons of Confederate Veterans put up a massive Confederate flag, colors as bright as if it were brand new. The flag doesn’t just remind you that you’re in the Deep South. It makes you remember that “remember” is a verb. We memorialize deliberately, and with particular goals in mind.

In and around Montgomery, the former “cradle of the Confederacy,” you are surrounded by signs of hatred and treason. One could regard the new Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to the thousands of African American lynching victims since the Civil War, this same way, arguing that commemorating the victims of a heinous crime dregs up tensions and nothing else. The past is best left in the past, they say. (Some in Montgomery have already said as much.) But if that’s the case, as Equal Justice Initiative and new memorial founder Bryan Stevenson remarked, why does Montgomery have 59 markers and monuments to the Confederacy within its city limits?

“I think we’ve done a terrible job of talking about our history of racial inequality, and our silence about that history has left us vulnerable to a lot of the problems that we have today,” Stevenson told me last week during the memorial’s opening weekend. “And we’re going to have to create a new America.”

Lynching was a new kind of horror for the American descendants of kidnapped Africans. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the Southern journalist who wrote critically about lynchings and was later exiled to Chicago after threats, wrote in her 1895 pamphlet The Red Record that “with freedom” for the newly emancipated, “a new system of intimidation came into vogue; the Negro was not only whipped and scourged. He was killed.” Lynching was the most sustained campaign of domestic terrorism outside of slavery’s holocaust. As Jesse Jackson noted last week in Montgomery, there still is no federal legislation banning lynching. More than 4,400 deaths between 1877 and 1950 were tallied by the Equal Justice Initiative. These are just the ones that Stevenson and his EJI team were able to count.

Stevenson founded EJI in 1994, when he was in his mid-thirties. Known for its advocacy and action against mass incarceration, EJI guarantees representation to death row inmates, and has spared at least 125 of them from being killed by the state. It has also won liberation for wrongfully convicted inmates like Anthony Ray Hinton, recently freed after 30 years in prison for two murders he didn’t commit.

People from all over gathered in Montgomery last week to celebrate the new American monument with a weekend’s worth of events. The Concert for Peace and Justice, which drew more than 7,000 attendees, featured a bill unseen outside of most major festivals, including Stevie Wonder, the Roots, Bilal, Kirk Franklin and Tasha Cobbs Leonard. The summit that preceded the concert featured panels with a who’s who of black intelligentsia and entertainers, including The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander and Selma director Ava DuVernay. The star power in Montgomery alone could let us know that something special was afoot. That, however, would be to miss the forest for the trees. One week after its opening, it is difficult not to marvel at a particular fact concerning the museum and memorial: geography.

Stevenson and the EJI have built two bold and unapologetic reminders of the American hatred, torture and murder of black people, and they’ve done it in Alabama. This is the state that once elected mass-incarceration champion Jeff Sessions and nearly chose alleged serial sexual abuser Roy Moore to replace him in the U.S. Senate. (Moore is now reportedly considering a run for Alabama governor.) These new monuments do not merely demand accountability for the scourges of Jim Crow and its associated mob violence that helped white people maintain their unearned privilege for centuries. Stevenson’s team is undertaking its mission inside the city that served as the first capital of the Confederacy. It’s a direct challenge to the new Jim Crow mindset. It is a patriotic act. If love remains the primary weapon against racial hatred, as Stevenson would argue, what shows more love for this country than holding it accountable?

Last Friday, I watched as Usher toured the memorial with his family, drawing a bevy of whispers but, as far as I could tell, no giddy fans or autograph hounds. Later that night, he asked me, “How often do we, as black people, say, ‘I don’t want to look at that shit? I don’t want to see that because that’s not what my life is now’?” He had just left the stage after his performance at the kickoff concert, but, even as he caught his breath, Usher spoke with the clarity of a college professor. “Our history is inside the pain that is here now,” he said. “You have to shine a light on it to even see it.”

That light emanates from the Legacy Museum in a particularly haunting way. Housed in a former warehouse a short walk from the riverbank, the museum features both the ghostly apparitions of actors portraying enslaved African Americans once held on the same grounds. Animations by the artist Molly Crabapple detail the wretched heritage of slavery and lynching inherent in our current system of law enforcement and criminal justice. A statue entitled “Doubt” shows a naked black man kneeling and clutching a flag marked by barely identifiable touchstones of blackness, including solemn caramel eyes and the red, black, green and gold of an African ancestry discarded by our kidnappers. The museum’s centerpiece, though, may be the hundreds of large glass jars bearing the names of lynching victims and dirt from the sites of their murders, collected by their family members. The color of the dirt varies widely, from the dark chocolate of your favorite cake to an auburn so bright that you’d have sworn that the blood of the murdered had seeded it.

The memorial, however, may prove even more affecting. You are greeted almost immediately by raw, nearly naked sculptures of enslaved Africans chained together. You see a mother with a baby reaching out for a husband about to be sold off. When you reach the top of the hill overlooking the Alabama state capitol, 805 rectangular metal slabs – each about six feet tall – are waiting for you. Some have thin streaks of orange against their dark exterior. Others seem to be eating themselves from within.

As you walk through the labyrinth, the memorial’s wooden floor begins to drop, and the columns rise like hanged women and men above you. They each represent a county or state where these murders occurred, and, during my visit, many attendees were looking for the names of family members who had been previously lost to history.

I looked for the Mississippi column on which my great-grandfather’s name may have been listed had he not fled north as a teenager after a lynching threat. Thankfully, John Johnson made it to Pittsburgh, and, generations later, his great-grandson was born on his birthday. I soon found the column with Washington County, thankful that I was alive to do so at all.

Upon her visit last week, blues-folk singer Valerie June also recognized pieces of her childhood in the memorial. “I’m from the edge of three counties [in Tennessee] – Crockett County, Gibson County, Madison County. I lived with my family where those counties meet. That’s the dirt I played in. And all my counties were there. They were all present.” Her mother, who is from Kentucky’s Fulton County, also saw her home too well represented. “It was the smallest writing,” June said of the names on the Fulton County column, an indication of just how many names were on it.

Montgomery is the birthplace of the particular civil rights movement that we think about when we say “civil rights movement.” Alabama has the third-highest incarceration rate in the nation, and imprisons nearly ten times the number of black people than it does white. Alabama gave the openly bigoted Donald Trump its nine electoral votes in 2016 by a nearly 28-point margin over Hillary Clinton.

White supremacy is on the march in America more conspicuously than ever in recent memory, receiving assists from unlikely sources. “Slavery” and “lynching” mean specific things, yet ignorant celebrities like Kanye West and R. Kelly, have trafficked publicly in lies about slavery’s horrors. The latter recently made a hyperbolic reference to being lynched while he is still breathing.

The “free thinking” Kanye West mistakes for critical thinking should be open to challenge, as should the lies he told. Both the museum and memorial are disconcerting places to enter for anyone, though, even if you accept the truth about slavery and lynching – and whether your forebears were more likely to be victims of lynching, or perpetrators and beneficiaries of it. But as Americans we must go, and we must all take account.

“You look anywhere in the world where justice has prevailed, where quality has triumphed, and you will always see people who did uncomfortable and inconvenient things,” Stevenson told me, housed in the same warehouse as the Museum. “Think about this: black people were enslaved, they were torn away from their children, battered, exploited and raped. And when Emancipation came, they said, ‘You know what? Let’s try to make this work. Let’s not hate and kill the white people who enslaved us. Let’s not become violent. Let’s try to make peace.’ Now, how patriotic is that?

“While they were being lynched and terrorized after being promised emancipation and getting terrorism,” Stevenson continued. “They kept looking for ways just to create peace and security. Then they were told statutorily, legally, ‘you’re not equal, you can’t go to school, you can’t vote, you can’t do that.’ And even when Dr. King was protesting, he said, ‘No, we still believe in this country.’ And that’s why I can’t identify a group of people in this country when I look at our history who have been more committed to the just America, a fair America, an equal America, than African Americans. And our protests are rooted in a belief that we can do better, that we can be great. And there is something, I think, profoundly patriotic in that. Even when you take your knee, it’s ultimately an appeal to the larger nation to own up to the idea. And you can’t do it comfortably and conveniently if you want things to happen.”

Perhaps America does not grant civil rights leaders the same celebrity as it did in the 1950s and 1960s. That said, Stevenson belongs on the list of greats. A bestselling author and compelling orator, he is indisputably one of America’s foremost civil rights champions—and has already become a historical figure in his own right. But, by his own admission, he is no event planner; he enlisted Live Nation to help set up the show.

Dave Matthews, one of the artists drawn to participate in the concert, recognized immediately the power of what Stevenson and the EJI have created. Matthews, the only white performer on the bill, was passionate about the need for the kind of testaments he saw on display during his time visiting the Legacy Museum last week. “I feel profoundly – in the deepest way that I can – that the truth of how this country came to be what it is, is at best half-told,” he told me. “We have to acknowledge that in our history books. The reason why we flourish now is because of that profound crime against humanity.”

That echoed what rapper and actor Common told me last week about America’s original sin. “We’ve gotta be held accountable for what this country has done to black people. [This country] has to be held accountable,” he said. “It’s the step towards healing, right? And I gotta be here to support that mission overall—but we’re dealing with a lot of things that are heavy and meaningful. As a musician, sometimes the music is the connective tissue that [lets us know] we’re gonna breathe in these moments, and we’re going to share some joy in these moments.”

For those fighting to advance civil rights and ensure equal access for all to the bounty of the American project, music can manifest as both motivation and escape. The Trump era, with its constant rhetorical aggressions and regressive policy, has created a new need for that space. Speaking at the opening ceremony for the museum and memorial the night before the concert, John Lewis, the Georgia Congressman and civil rights champion, made that plain. “I’ve said on many an occasion,” he offered, “that without art, without music, or writers, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.”

Robert Glasper, the jazz pianist, understood the power and constancy of music sometimes helps it do what advocacy cannot. “It’s almost like crushing the aspirin in orange juice,” Glasper said. “When you want to give a kid some medicine, what do you do? You put it in some juice, you put it in some cake.” (My mother once put mine in ice cream, I tell him. Same deal.) “All of a sudden, they feel better, but they don’t know why!” he says as we both laugh. “That’s what music does, you know what I mean?”

***

The exposure of the broken bones and flesh and lives of African Americans is not done out of spite or revenge. Stevenson and the EJI are shining that loving light that Usher was talking about onto the country’s wounds as a means of spiritual first aid. Yes, it may be difficult to get through the epitaphs and accountability and symbolism at the museum and memorial. But in revealing American hatred, this whole endeavor shows that the purpose is more about love than anything.

This is not unprecedented, of course. “Germany has become a different country in a relatively short period of time after the Holocaust,” Stevenson said. “The Germans said, ‘We don’t want to be Nazis and fascists forever. So we’re going to talk about the Holocaust.'” We haven’t done that in this country, he said. Now, as of last week, we’re doing so in Montgomery, of all places. So, yeah, that called for a big party. “To erect these institutions that are actually saying, ‘we’re going to talk about this legacy, we’re going to acknowledge this history’—and then to put people together, black and white folks, on that river and express our joy at ending the silence. It is celebratory. It is joyful.”

Dusk had fallen in Montgomery by the time the music started last Friday night, but the Alabama River still shone brightly behind the stage. The former superhighway for the slave trade, snaking its way through downtown, was now little more than an artificially illuminated backdrop for black excellence. It barely seemed to flow at all, as if the ghosts of slavers who once captained its waters were now trapped there by their sins, lying there tonight unmoved by the beats, flows and exclamations of the thousands along the riverbank. Or perhaps, I’d like to think, the other apparitions residing in the great Alabama – the ones who might look more like me, if we could see them – were simply holding the river still, themselves arrested by the joyful noises. For once, the literal spotlight was on them and their descendants. Alongside a river where black people were once sold as property, there was now a revel in our names.

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