The US now has a visceral physical reminder of its brutal racist history. The country’s first memorial to thousands of lynching victims ‘The National Memorial for Peace and Justice’ and museum documenting centuries-long black oppression, ‘The Legacy Museum: from Enslavement to Mass Incarceration’, opened last week in Montgomery, Alabama.
The legal advocacy organisation Equal Justice Initiative, which founded the project, argues that two centuries of slavery weren’t erased with the end of the Civil War. Oppression evolved into lynchings, then segregation and civil rights suppression, and finally racially biased mass incarceration today.
Other countries have confessed their shameful histories: South Africa acknowledged Apartheid. Germany memorialised the Holocaust. Canada apologised to the abused Native people. The US has never so visibly and publicly admitted and attempted to atone for centuries of violence against Blacks – until now.
Bryan Stevenson, the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, says in a message in the museum that the country needs to acknowledge is a “failure to deal with a history of racial injustice” in order to move forward.
The Equal Justice Initiative documented more than 4,000 Black lynching victims between 1877 and 1950 across the country, although mostly in Southern states. Men, women and children were beaten, shot, hanged or burned alive for reasons like trying to vote, walking behind a white woman or asking for a drink of water. Some were accused of crimes but met the mob before they ever saw the inside of a courtroom.
For more than a century, these lynching victims were largely unnamed and ignored as a painful memory in the US’s public consciousness. Now, they’re seeing the light.
On a hill on the outskirts of Montgomery, a visitor entering the memorial first faces six sculpted figures of slaves. They are shackled together, their iron bodies streaked with rust as though blood, their faces contorted in anguish. One woman clutches her baby as she reaches out in desperation.
Over the crest of the hill rise 800 rusted rectangles – one for each US county where a Black person was killed by mob violence. The boxes are six feet tall, the height of a person, and inscribed with the name and death date of each victim.
The boxes begin at eye-level, but as a visitor descends into the memorial, they elevate until hanging like black lynched bodies, as though the observer is part of the lynching mob. The rest of the boxes are laid out like coffins. The exhibit ends in a placard that acknowledges thousands more unknown victims.
But lynching is just one dark chapter in a contentious racial history confronted in the new memorial and museum. The location of the project was intentional. Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, was both the centre of the slavery-supporting Civil War Confederacy, where Confederate Memorial Day is still celebrated as a state holiday, and the birthplace of the civil rights movement where Martin Luther King Jr got his start.
Montgomery was also one of the busiest slave markets in the US less than 200 years ago. At the river port, hundreds of thousands of human beings were bought and sold. The Equal Justice Initiative chose to build their museum on the site of a former slave pen.
The museum argues that “the narrative of racial inferiority…endured beyond the formal abolition of American slavery.” First, it was mob violence. Photos show lynching victims’ corpses hanging from trees with their hands tied behind their backs – snapshots sometimes sold as postcards to spectators. Glass jars filled with soil from each county where a lynching took place line shelves on one wall.
Next, it was legalised segregation. “Whites only” signs are displayed next to laws that prohibited different races from getting married or playing Billiards together. But even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act ensured equality by law, Blacks were still not equal – especially in the eyes of the criminal justice system.
According to the museum, two million Americans are currently incarcerated. Most are people of colour. One in three black American men is expected to be imprisoned in his lifetime, as he is six more times likely to be convicted of the same crime as a white man. The museum argues that this ongoing injustice is evidence that slavery didn’t disappear – it simply evolved.
At the opening ceremony for the memorial and museum, US Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis remembered when 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi in 1955. Images of Till’s mutilated face in his open casket ignited civil rights protests and created a movement.
Lewis told the crowd of at least a thousand people that ignoring the US’s racist history is not an option.
“Some people argue this is in the past, we should forget it. We can never forget what happened to hundreds and thousands of people,” Lewis said. “We will redeem the soul of America and put an end to racial violence.”
All photos by Mallory Moench.
Mallory Moench is a global nomad and multimedia journalist with experience reporting on three continents. She has produced work for the Associated Press, Al Jazeera and The Intercept, among others. She was an intern with The Wire in 2017.