The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama (what some people call the “lynching memorial”) is dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence. It was completed recently and opened to the public on April 26. For more information see https:museumandmemorial.eji.org
by Robert Karl Hutchinson
“Monumental” is a superlative that we bandy about carelessly. I’ve looked at hundreds of monuments and a few of them are truly great – the Vietnam Memorial and Lincoln Memorial in D.C., the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, and the Malaya Zemlya Memorial in Novorossiysk commemorating Russian martyrs of WWII.
What makes these monuments “monumental” is not their size – but rather their ability to convey their purpose at any scale. They must first attract us from a distance with a promise to show or explain something we’ve never seen or understood before.
As we approach (and the approach has been incorporated into the design), the monument provides more and more information, until we are finally overwhelmed by the factual, poetic, and moral purpose of the monumental creation. Using this basic definition, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, is one of the world’s great monuments.
Referred to by some as the “lynching memorial,” the concept seems simple – display a list of all the known racial lynching victims in the US arranged by county.
I’m not going to recount how they do this, or describe the accompanying sculpture, poetry, or displays of information, because my words and even my pictures (or anybody’s pictures) cannot do the experience justice. Photos and reviews of the monument which opened in April 2018 are on-line, but I urge you to make the pilgrimage to Montgomery to visit this sacred site in person.
As you tour Montgomery, you will observe a city that is deep in the throes of examining its past and re-making its future. Everywhere are signs of its history as a slave market, as a cradle of the Confederacy, and as a crucible in the civil rights movement. You’ll also see fully integrated public spaces, lots of inter-racial parties and couples, and you’ll gain a sense that the Equal Justice Initiative and its partners have taken on the toughest of customers, yet they are succeeding in re-framing the culture of this most southern of cities.
There are many things that make the Peace and Justice Monument remarkable as an artistic experience and (along with its nearby museum) truly exceptional as a work of ongoing scholarship. But its most brilliant concept is that each county where a lynching has been documented may lay claim to an exact replica of its metal slab engraved with the names of local lynching victims.
Alachua County’s slab is laid out along with 800 others for us to request when we are ready. Someday, the pieces of this single monument, like the ripples from a stone in a pond, will have spread themselves across a large portion of the country. The Equal Justice Initiative has yet to publish its criteria for transferring ownership, but it will be some sort of “truth and reconciliation” process that must satisfy them, but more importantly, satisfy us.
Already in Alachua County, local historians have identified 43 lynching victims, which is more than twice what the Equal Justice Initiative discovered in their own search – currently there are 18 listed on their panel who were murdered from 1893 to 1926.
But besides the work of documenting our history of fatal terror that was aided and abetted by civic, political, law enforcement, and judicial leaders, we must also address the impacts of the disenfranchisement for which this terror was the point of the spear.
Our educational institutions were (and are) unequal. Employment was restricted, credit was withheld, housing was segregated, medical help was substandard, veteran’s benefits were denied black GIs, and many other injustices were commonplace. These are some of the truths that we must remember in ways that cannot be forgotten.
Reconciliation has three parts.
The first is acceptance of the facts as best they can be determined. This is the work of historians, amateur and professional, to help us know our past. We have suppressed much of our history – I can say this as somebody privileged to get an exceptionally fine and expensive education. Yet in my recent visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, not five minutes would go by when I wasn’t confronted with evidence that much of what I knew had been purposefully and systematically bleached.
The second step in reconciliation is Who’s Who. This is painful but necessary. We know there were members of the KKK during the racial terror who were elected officials and community leaders, and there are others who profited from the prisoner leasing system and other institutions of the Jim Crowe era.
We know there were churches that preached hatred, and elections that were rigged, property that was stolen, and crimes that went unpunished. We are in a time when the worst of the atrocities of the Jim Crowe era are still fresh enough to be remembered by someone, yet far enough away that we can have perspective.
But these are not just ripples in a pond that will gradually dissipate on their own – they are overwhelming tidal waves of injustice that must end now so that they cannot continue reverberating through additional generations.
The third step in reconciliation is to fix what we can, and then to consciously decide to forgive the rest. This will take sacrifice and courage and generosity – but we are capable of it, and we will be so much better for undertaking this effort. In Alachua County, the work has begun. We have the capacity to repair and reconcile – whatever our community decides that will be.
If we focus on peace and justice locally, our memorial will be to finally know ourselves and to be proud of what we have overcome together.
Robert Hutchinson is an Alachua County Commissioner