The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Is this when America was great?

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)

In the Riverfront Park of this state capital, you will find a series of panels depicting the city’s history. They will tell you when the first white settler arrived, how riverboats transformed Montgomery into a trading hub for cotton “and many other important commodities,” and how the city became the cradle of the Confederacy.

They will not tell you that the most important of those other commodities was human beings.

It is the sort of lacuna, says Bryan Stevenson, that allows people to “achieve political victories by celebrating the greatness of America.”

“The question is, which decade are black Americans supposed to want to relive?”

It also is a gap that is about to be filled in the most dramatic fashion just a few blocks from the riverfront, beginning Thursday. That is when the Equal Justice Initiative, which Stevenson founded and heads, will open the Legacy Museum and, nearby, an equally powerful, even more unusual outdoor memorial to the thousands of African American victims of the state terror tactic known as lynching.

Together they offer an alternative, and overwhelmingly coherent, arc of the history of white supremacy from slavery to the arrest of two black men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia this month. They reflect Stevenson’s view that, unlike in South Africa or post- ­Nazi Germany or many other societies traumatized by history, we’ve hardly begun to grapple with ours — and so cannot yet get beyond it.

“Right now we have a lot of people in this country who still can only love people of their color,” Stevenson said during a conversation Friday. “And that means we’re not fully human. We’re not free.

Bree Newsome: Nonviolence isn't just a tactic, it's a goal (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome, Jesse Mesner-Hage/The Washington Post)

“These projects for me are about ending the silence.”

The museum and memorial are unlike anything I’ve experienced and more than worth a trip, and I hope (and expect) that millions will come. But I will leave the reviews and descriptions to others. What stood out to me, in this political moment, is the clarity of historical exposition from slavery to Jim Crow to what Stevenson sees as a “new caste system” arising from mass incarceration.

In Stevenson’s view, slavery did not end with the Confederacy’s defeat so as much as “evolve.”

After the Civil War, whites in the South refused to give up their control over black populations or the bigotry on which that rested. While sharecropping and Jim Crow laws kept blacks unfree, the criminal-justice system was used to replicate slavery; blacks were imprisoned for minor offenses and then rented out for forced labor. By 1898, 73 percent of Alabama’s state revenue came from convict leasing.

Any possibility of resistance was squelched by the constant threat of lynching — public spectacles in which blacks were tortured, burned alive, hung, shot or dismembered for any offense or no offense at all. Thousands of whites would gather to watch. Postcards of the event would be printed and sold. Toes and fingers and other body parts would be distributed.

Lynching — mostly, though not only, in the Deep South; the Washington suburbs in Maryland and Virginia saw their share, as did Ohio, Illinois and West Virginia — petered out by about 1950, and the civil rights laws of the 1960s formally ended Jim Crow.

But white supremacy evolved again, in Stevenson’s view, again using the criminal-justice system. The era of mass incarceration saw thousands upon thousands of blacks locked away, sometimes unjustly, often for minor offenses — and not just in the South, of course. Blacks were — and are — more likely to be suspended from school, denied parole and when freed from prison denied benefits, kept out of public housing, blocked from employment or professional licenses and, once again, prevented from voting.

And the color of their skin still can put them at risk with police, from minor harassment at coffee shops to fatal shootings — “presumed dangerous and guilty,” as Stevenson said.

“The ideology of racial supremacy survived the passage of the Civil Rights Act,” Stevenson said. “Indifference to black victimization is what defines each of these eras.”

The planning for this museum and memorial began long before a white youth gunned down nine worshipers in an African American church in Charleston, S.C., before we had a president praising neo-Nazis marching in defense of Confederate statues, before an administration began again talking about harsher sentences and more death penalties. Some might find all that discouraging. Stevenson takes a different lesson.

“There was this hope that this race stuff would just evaporate over time — and it doesn’t work like that,” he said. “It is a serious disease, and if we don’t treat it, it doesn’t get better. It doesn’t go away.”

But in the end, there is optimism in his relentless realism. “We’re not doomed by this history. We’re not even defined by it,” he said. “But we do have to face it.”

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