What is the power of a memorial?
In Montgomery, the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice has singlehandedly made the nation confront its violent racial past.
Until its debut in 2018, mentioning racial violence like lynching was still taboo. Some museums made reference, but for the most part, it was too much to put front and center.
The memorial itself takes visitors on a gut-wrenching journey through some of America’s darkest moments. It has been called the most important U.S. memorial since the debut of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall in 1982.
For many, a visit is the emotional climax of a civil rights tour, the scene that stays with them for a lifetime.
Montgomery’s museum is the creation of attorney Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to free falsely convicted death-row prisoners. The six-acre outdoor memorial looms on a hill above downtown Montgomery. It’s located about a half-mile from the museum. While the museum is worthwhile, it’s the memorial that staggers.
It features 800 weathered steel boxes hanging in an open canopy. Each marker represents a county or jurisdiction that experienced a lynching between 1877 and 1950. On the boxes you’ll find the names of forgotten victims, like Henry Smith of Lamar County, Texas. The young man was accused of killing a white girl, and then hanged and maimed in front of a crowd of 10,000. There’s also Elizabeth Lawrence, lynched in Birminghan, Alabama, in 1933 after she scolded children for throwing rocks. And thousands more.
The information comes from a study that documented more than 4,000 lynchings, which the researchers classify as racial terror killings.
In most cases, the victims were grabbed by a mob and publicly killed, usually by hanging, but also by gunshot or drowning. Sometimes it occurred in public squares, where vendors sold refreshments. Gawkers claimed pieces of clothing or body parts as souvenirs. Occasionally, commemorative postcards were printed.
While the memorial recounts these details in brief side panels, its visual impact is devastating. The markers hang at eye level, but as visitors proceed through the monument, the floor slopes down. Soon the monuments are suspended above, forcing one to look up. Eventually, hundreds of slabs hang ahead like bodies. A visitor becomes the spectator, like those that came out to watch lynchings, bearing witness to brutality.
Outside the central canopy, a replica of every marker lays in a field. Each jurisdiction is invited to claim their monument to bring home for public display. The intent is clear. As Stevenson said when the monument opened: “Our memorial will become a report card about which communities have owned up to their history.”
A half-mile away, the small Legacy Museum, which is built in a former slave warehouse, offers context. Beginning with hologram exhibit of an enslaved man, it argues that lynching was a systematic tool to control and terrorize African-Americans after emancipation. That legacy led to Jim Crow laws legalizing segregation, and continues today in what the museum calls the “mass incarceration” of African-Americans.
And then there are the jars of soil collected from the site of lynchings. Like the makers hanging in the memorial, the hundreds of containers displayed on shelves offer a mute testimony to the horrors of racial violence.
Of course, you’ll want to visit Montgomery’s other civil rights sites too.