I am drawn to cemeteries with historical significance and have been privileged to visit many, among them the battlefields of Gettysburg PA, Arlington National Cemetery, the American Cemetery on the Normandie shore in the north of France, and Punchbowl National Cemetery in Oahu, Hawaii.
Since I heard of the vision for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, I knew I wanted to visit it someday. It opened in April 2018 in Montgomery AL. The visionaries were Bryan Stevenson and the team of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which he founded in 1989. While not a cemetery in the proper sense, the memorial is dedicated to the over 4,000 African-Americans lynched, burned, or drowned in our country after the Civil War.
Several years ago, I read Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy.” It was the best book I read that year and, indeed, one of the most powerful books I have ever encountered. Stevenson is a Philadelphia born black man, now a lawyer living in Montgomery. He has given much of his adult life to defending victims of injustice, usually racial injustice, in Alabama, free of charge. He has been profiled on “60 Minutes” and in major newspapers and magazines. EJI has had some success in getting blacks out of prison, including some that have spent years on death row for crimes they never committed.
Thus, I was drawn to visit these two sites in Montgomery even before they were completed. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice has received more acclaim, so I will begin with it. Before visiting it, though I had read the official name, I tended to refer to it as the “lynchings memorial.” And that it is, but more. Set on six acres in downtown Montgomery, it is at first rather unassuming. We arrived late Saturday afternoon and though we had passes for Sunday, we drove right there to see if we could get in. The parking areas were filled and several large buses lined the street by the entrance. We understood when they said they couldn’t let us in that day. Across the street is the visitors center and gift shop. By the entrance steps there is water flowing over memorial plaques with the names of people lynched in that neighborhood. Silence. Inside on one wall are dozens of jars of soil, each jar with a name (sometimes simply “anonymous”) and location. Each jar contains soil from the site of that person’s lynching. Silence. To memorialize the over 4,000 African Americans lynched, or burned, or drowned at the hands of white Americans, without due process (usually without even the semblance of a trial), after the Civil War, from roughly 1870 through 1950, EJI is collecting soil samples from every lynching site thus far identified. We would see more jars in the museum, our next stop.
Photos of the memorial can readily be found on the internet. I have already posted some of mine on Facebook. The story of the lynchings of black people at the hands of white is told with several quotes and some written narration, gripping statuary, and the-walk through memorial itself. Nothing seems level. There are angles that quickly reminded me of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. The fencing is dark. The grass is green. The heart of the memorial is in the center, where the names of all the lynched men, women, and children are on elongated hanging steel boxes, one for each county in which lynchings have been certified. We were there when it opened on our morning, before buses had arrived. Hence, it was silent virtually our whole hour. I expect that when it is crowded, there is some talking, but not much. The floors slope, so one starts looking right at the names at eye level. Then one turns a corner and the boxes get gradually higher, until one is walking under them. There is a section where the walls are lined by flat hangings with a name on each and a brief description of why that person was lynched. There is a wall with water washing over it, in memory of the lynched persons not yet identified.
One exits into a courtyard with replicas of the steel boxes laid flat, the states in alphabetical order. The memorial’s desire is that each county will claim its steel box and display it somewhere for the public to see. I don’t think many have been claimed yet. We white Americans have a hard time admitting what we have done, our horrendous crimes against humanity, indeed against other Americans whose skin is not white.
Did I enjoy visiting this memorial? Of course not. The point is not enjoyment, but experiencing a bracing reality in an unforgettable way. Am I glad that I visited it? Yes, emphatically yes. I am an American patriot who refuses to believe my country has never done wrong. I am an American patriot who is not proud of much of our history. I am an American patriot who dreams of a better day, a day when peace and justice reign in our land. After 9/11/2001, Americans said, “We will not forget.” Of course, we will never forget what foreigners did that day on our soil. Yet we too readily want to forget what we did to ourselves, the crimes we, white Americans, committed on black Americans for over three centuries.
Have things changed in terms of racism in America today? Yes, in many ways. And no, not in every way. There is a long journey before us today to become that land “of liberty and justice for all.”
[In a following blog I will write about my visit to the Legacy Museum.}