The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The lynching memorial ends our national silence on racial terrorism

Hundreds of steel columns dangling from beams symbolize lynching victims at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. (Video: Jonathan Capehart / The Washington Post)

When I visited Berlin five years ago, I was awed and thrilled by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Topography of Terror museum. Thrilled because those places and other blunt expressions of public accountability in the German capital for the nation’s horrific past were a break from the ignored or euphemistic, happy-faced storytelling of the painful parts of U.S. history. I marveled at the ability of a nation to unflinchingly look itself in the mirror and then permanently report back its findings to the world in word and architecture.

America’s inability to replicate that kind of raw, historical honesty has always pained me. That’s not to say we’re not getting better. At the National Museum for African American History and Culture, the sin of slavery is not just some distant institution of commerce, but it’s also accurately depicted as an evil that destroyed real lives. We are still grappling with its consequences, and our failure to atone for it mars our ability to collectively recover.

LISTEN: You’re right, Mr. President. Slavery ‘is not good.’ And this book by Daina Ramey Berry sheds new light on how horrific it was.

At least I was taught about slavery when I was kid, even if its depiction skewed more toward “Gone With the Wind” than “Roots.” But lynching? Those extrajudicial killings of African Americans throughout the South (and the North) by whites? When they did come up in school, they were in the context of the Ku Klux Klan. Never (or glancingly) mentioned was that these barbaric murders were public spectacles that were advertised, reported and celebrated with pictures, postcards and macabre souvenirs.

The Equal Justice Initiative has issued two reports on the state-sanctioned domestic terrorism that gripped the United States between 1877 and 1950. The 2015 study focused on the South. The update released in 2017 focused on the documented cases in the North. Together, they document more than 4,300 lynchings in 20 states. And on Thursday, in Montgomery, Ala., a long-awaited and powerful public reckoning with our grisly past opens to the public.

How the terror of lynchings in the past haunt us today and our future.

After touring the Legacy Museum in downtown Montgomery and the nearby National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which sits atop a hill overlooking the Cradle of the Confederacy, I was overcome with the same emotions that washed over me in Berlin. Finally, the story is being told. The unvarnished truth — in unsparing words and video, ghastly pictures, oxidized steel, anguished sculpture — is on display. There’s no escaping your nation’s history here. You have to deal with it. You have to confront it. And you might have to come to terms with the participation of your community or your ancestors and their complicity in pretending none of it happened or none of it matters today.

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The Legacy Museum

Come prepared to read at the Legacy Museum. But the economy of words used to teach what many don’t know gives the exhibits incredible power. They flow from slavery to lynching, then from Jim Crow segregation to mass incarceration. That’s because they are all linked by history. A history that starts in the museum itself, once a warehouse for slaves during Montgomery’s heyday in human trafficking. A map of the Alabama capital’s concentration of slave-related business shows how dependent it was on slavery, as is the reminder that the domestic slave trade, which continued after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, was responsible for populating the South with blacks.

You move from the slave pens that ring with the ghostly voices of the sold into the open of the museum, where ads and catalogue listings hawking “Negroes for sale” rain from the ceiling. “Black people were thought of as game. That commodification of African Americans that takes place during slavery. You’re not human. You’re something else,” said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, during an interview for my podcast “Cape Up.” “The slave catalogue that we have in our museum on display, the title of it is what shakes me. It says, ‘Negroes, mules, carts, feed.’ ”

LISTEN to Bryan Stevenson’s full interview explaining why we must confront our country’s racial terrorism and then say, “Never again.”

For more conversations like this, subscribe to “Cape UP” on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and anywhere else you listen to podcasts.

“The great evil of American slavery was involuntary servitude or forced labor. I really believe that the true evil of American slavery was the narrative of racial difference that we created to justify it,” Stevenson told me. That indifference was at its horrendous worst during decades of lynching. “The reason why nobody cares that thousands of black people are being hanged and drowned and beaten and burned to death on the courthouse lawn, while thousands cheer, is because we have this ideology of white supremacy, we have this narrative of racial difference that that victimization doesn’t matter.”

On display are 320 jars of EJI’s expanding Soil Project. On those jars are the names of the lynched, the date of their murder, and the names of the county and state where it happened. Inside the jars is soil from the location. “The Soil Project really just grew out of a desire to give people something to do in the face of this grief, in the face of this trauma,” explained Stevenson when I asked him where the idea came from. “It’s tangible. And what I loved about soil is it’s such a powerful medium, because in that soil is the sweat of the enslaved, in that soil is the blood of those who were lynched and terrorized, the tears of those who were humiliated and segregated. But also in that soil, we can grow something. We could actually plant something that becomes beautiful, that nurtures us, that sustains us.”

Another sobering moment comes when you interact with the documented lynching data from the two EJI reports by touching a console that allows you to tap states and counties to see where the documented lynchings happened. My mother’s birth county in North Carolina is there. So is the county where some of my fondest memories as a teen in New Jersey are. My husband’s home state of North Dakota is there. As are most of the counties that ring Washington, D.C.

Lynchings and the fear of other physical violence were used to ensure that Jim Crow laws held firm. That the humiliation of African Americans and the notion of there inferiority were maintained through segregation. One photograph in particular in the exhibition on segregation stood out to me. It’s of a gaggle of white teenagers waving the Confederate battle flag. For all those who still mewl about this noxious flag not being about hate and white supremacy, but about Southern pride and heritage, both are true. And the heritage they are proudly defending is reprehensible, as the picture below makes clear.

No wonder more than 6 million African Americans fled the South in the Great Migration. “It was only after being threatened and menaced and terrorized that black people fled,” Stevenson said. “And they went to Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and Oakland, not as immigrants seeking new economic opportunities, but they went there as refugees and exiles from terror.” Yet the move up north provided no respite from discrimination and humiliation.

The bigoted view of inferiority followed them, as did the presumption of danger and guilt, which feeds the mass incarceration we thunder about today. And it hovers over African Americans, all Americans, to this day. As Stevenson vividly described, our history of racial inequality “[has] created a kind of smog that we all breathe in and it has prevented us from being healthy.”

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

The four stations on view at the museum — slavery, lynching, segregation and mass incarceration — are all on display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. As you make your way to that hilltop, you are confronted by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s life-size sculptures depicting the horror of slavery. From the anguished faces and wrenching physical gestures to the their circular configuration, the disorientation of enslavement and the trauma of separation — from home and loved ones — is powerfully rendered. So real are these figures that I thought there was someone standing next to me as I photographed the information marker. When I looked over, I saw a face that struck me as a mix of defiance and resignation. The entire scene is heartbreaking.

Segregation and mass incarceration have their sculptural representations, but lynching literally dominates the landscape. The Post’s Philip Kennicott aptly described it in his review: “A somber, hilltop pergola of rusted steel … comprising more than 800 coffin-shaped boxes of oxidized steel hanging from a square canopy.” He also puts the memorial into architectural and historical context. But nothing compares to seeing this jewel with your own eyes and walking through it. From a distance and up close, you are watching a lynching.

Those coffin-shaped boxes, or “monuments,” as they are called, never touch the ground. They are mere inches from the floor when you enter. As you walk around them, reading the names of the murdered and where they were killed, their presence is felt. But when you round the second bend, the floor slopes down, and as you move forward, the monuments slowly rise higher. The offenses that hastened death line the walls along the third bend. “After an overcoat went missing from a hotel.” “Drinking from a white man’s well.” “Being ‘intoxicated.’ ” “Refused to abandon one’s land to white people.” “Walking behind the wife of his white employer.” “Striking to protest low wages.”

The enormity of what I saw hit me in two places. The first time came when I walked onto the green clearing that rests in the center of the memorial. As our guide, also named Jonathan, pointed out, we were having the inverse experience of the lynched. Instead of the victim being in the center, the visitors are in the place of the lynched, who are now standing in judgment. The brown oxidized monuments that reflect the array of skin tones of African Americans compound the symbolism.

The second time came when we walked into what Kennicott accurately portrays as “a vast, open-air morgue, outside the memorial structure.” The monuments, now resting horizontally on the ground, look like coffins. The goal is to have the communities claim their monuments. By displaying them publicly, those communities would be claiming their history. But the longer the monuments sit outside the memorial in Montgomery, the longer their public shaming will endure.

It has been five days since I visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The experience sticks with you. All of it. The words. The pictures. The videos. The sculptures. The sounds. The colors. The architecture. The history. The enormity of the documented evil. The lack of acknowledgement of the horror or accountability of the complicit.

With their incredible museum and memorial, Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative have given the nation a gift. One that will force us to face our history and deal with the consequences manifested in our present. It must. When you enter the memorial, a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on your right reads, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension. It is the presence of justice.” You cannot leave that memorial and remain unmoved by the inhumanity or unmotivated to do your part to hasten “the presence of justice.”

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Read more on the memorial:

The Post’s View: It’s time for these counties to reclaim their grisly history of lynching

Fred Hiatt: Is this when America was great?