Throughout this city, which proudly proclaims itself the cradle of both the Confederacy and the civil rights movement, two different histories coexist, separate and unequal. One quietly insists on the presence and persistence of African Americans, a history of injustice and struggle; in a parallel universe, another loudly hectors with the force of several brass bands, recalling all the old Lost Cause myths. One deals in big things, the epochal achievements of the civil rights movement, which is often said to have begun with Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her bus seat in 1955. The other is weirdly preoccupied with details and arcana, marking the minutiae of the Old South and especially the Confederacy. It’s not “Dixie” that was played for the first time along the inaugural parade route, but a “band arrangement” of “Dixie.” Another marker records “The Telegram Which Began the War Between the States” and yet another “The First Offices of the Confederate Government.”
Most of the memorial markers that acknowledge the city’s history of slavery and segregation are of relatively recent vintage, new additions to an overdetermined landscape of historical plaques and signs that glorify white supremacy. Fred David Gray, the lawyer and civil rights activist who represented Rosa Parks and won a class-action lawsuit against the government for the horrendous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, is honored with a sign erected in 2014. Another, acknowledging the contributions of black legislators in the state government during Reconstruction, went up in 2011. A sign on the capitol grounds honoring the Selma to Montgomery march was placed in 2012.
These markers insert new facts into the landscape, but it’s a landscape dominated by a more oppressive, hectoring history of racism. On the capitol grounds, things reach the point of absurdity. Jefferson Davis not only stands sentinel over the steps leading up from Dexter Avenue, but he is also remembered on the cornerstone of the large stone memorial column which serves as a monument to the state’s Civil War dead. The weirdness culminates in that 1886 monument, an overscale and elaborate form, on which is graven the unreconstructed language of the Lost Cause myth in all its ridiculous, racist fustian: “When this historic shaft shall crumbling lie,” reads one plaque on its base, there will still remain in “woman’s heart” a “deathless song of Southern chivalry.”
There’s nothing chivalrous about Confederate memorialization in Alabama, where the homage to a racist past isn’t a relic of Reconstruction and didn’t stop with the desperate, self-serving memorials of the 1960s and ’70s (a response to gains in African American civil rights). It continues apace, even today. Travel down Highway 80 to Selma — the route King and the civil rights marchers took in 1965 — and one finds Old Live Oak Cemetery, where the United Daughters of the Confederacy helped erect a statue devoted to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Civil War general and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The statue was stolen in 2012 and re-created in 2015. In 2017, the state passed a law, dubbed the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, designed to prevent localities from removing, renaming or altering existing memorials or memorial structures. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which opposes hate groups, saw through the flimsy justification of the law as a historic preservation measure, saying, it “is not about preserving our state’s history, but about protecting Confederate monuments that celebrate white supremacy and a time in which an entire race was enslaved and oppressed.”
Memorialization serves many purposes, although only rarely does it actually serve as a channel for living memory. Very often what is “remembered” has, in fact, been forgotten, and the memorial serves to place lost facts back into the public historical record. The cruel persistence of divisive memorialization in Alabama feels more like simple aggression, as though memory is a continuation of war by other means. One of the state’s most egregious cultural warriors, Roy Moore — who lost his bid to be one of the state’s U.S. senators only after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct — built his career on creating controversy over the placement of memorial markers, most prominently a 2.5-ton granite monument to the Ten Commandments. Moore built a personal cult of martyrdom around this statue, which he was ordered and refused to remove from the rotunda of the state’s judicial building.
It is within this ugly and fractious landscape that Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative is attempting to create a new language and strategy for recalling the past and its traumas. Before the group created the powerful new memorial to the victims of lynching and racial terror that opened this month , they erected small signs around town to recall the city’s slave past. Among these is a marker that stands outside the group’s offices, noting that the street was once “central to the operation of Montgomery’s slave trade.”
But even more effective has been their campaign to focus on lynching. The $15 million memorial, a bold and poetic architectural form on a hill near the center of town, is the most visible part of that effort. But Stevenson has also created a new dynamic of collection and dispersal to help revivify memory of the state’s ugly and sordid past. In a museum space a few blocks from the memorial are jars of soil collected from the site of lynchings throughout the South. The jars are arrayed on shelves, with a curiously powerful effect. The dirt has different colors, and textures, and sometimes resembles the gray, dusty consistency of cremated human remains. Other jars have the dark, earthy colors of rich agricultural soil. There’s no reason to think the soil collected bears any trace of the lives lost at these places, but it feels organic, human and somehow directly connected to the traumatic events that took place there.
At the same time that the Equal Justice Initiative has been gathering these evocative soil samples, it has been dispersing historical markers to the sites of lynchings. These signs are written in the spare, declarative language of the usual historical marker, which only enhances their power. In Letohatchee, less than an hour south of Montgomery, a sign placed in a local church yard notes that a black man was lynched nearby in 1900. When another African American man, Jim Cross, condemned the violence, he was killed by a mob of white men who also killed his wife, son and daughter. All told, the sign acknowledges seven lynching deaths in Letohatchee.
I went to visit that sign on a sunny weekend afternoon recently. It stands to the edge of a graveyard, near the church, with lush, verdant fields across the street. It’s found down a sparsely trafficked road, and only one car passed by in the quarter of an hour I spent there. Thousands of African Americans lost their lives to white terrorism since the Civil War, and this sign remembers only seven of them. But it was in many ways more powerful than any of the markers found in Montgomery and at least as powerful as the new memorial.
Perhaps it was the beauty of the spot, which seems incongruous with the ugliness of what happened there. Or maybe it was the relative silence of late afternoon in the countryside, without the noise of the city, or the implied cacophony of all those Confederate memorials that crave attention in Montgomery. But mostly it was the solitude of the place, the pure, sad, despairing aloneness of this one green patch. Collective memory is a fiction, though perhaps a useful one. And memory of things that never happened to us is also a fiction, and sometimes a pernicious one. But for a moment in this spot, the real fact of another human being’s life was powerfully present, and the loss of that life almost palpable. The violence wrought here wasn’t abstract or historical or a matter of debate. It was the loss of the entire world in a single being, the gravity of which I struggled and failed to extrapolate out some seven times. The challenge of doing it some 4,000 times — to get even close to the number of people who were lynched in the South — is enough to make one despair.