But here’s something else that has been happening: Some 400,000 people have visited a memorial to the victims of racial-terror lynchings since it opened in Montgomery, Ala., about one year ago. People in 300 counties where lynchings took place have started conversations about erecting markers or monuments in their hometowns. Maryland’s General Assembly last month created the nation’s first truth and reconciliation commission on lynching.
The vision of the memorial — that “it would be born in Montgomery but live all over the country,” as founder Bryan Stevenson said — is becoming real.
It’s a big, complicated country. The hopeful doesn’t negate the baleful. But the hopeful is a part of our story.
Stevenson, a lawyer, has been representing people convicted, in some cases wrongly, of capital crimes in Alabama for three decades through the Equal Justice Initiative.
He believes that the opposite of poverty is not wealth but justice; that all human beings are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done; and that racial healing cannot take place until the country faces the truth about its history.
To that end, the Equal Justice Initiative created and last year inaugurated in Montgomery the Legacy Museum, which traces the United States’ history of racial oppression from slavery through Jim Crow to mass incarceration, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
The memorial offers a haunting, distressing passage through 800 hanging steel columns, each representing a county where lynchings took place, and each engraved with the names of the victims. Originally, the idea was to have a monument at every lynching site, but EJI documented more than 4,400 that took place between 1877 and 1950, so that was impractical.
A duplicate of each of the 800 pillars lies on the grass outside, waiting for its county to claim it and place it in a suitably public location. None has been claimed yet, but Stevenson told me he’s fine with that.
“We don’t want to just see a monument go up,” he said. “We want there to be multiple discussions. The monument placement isn’t meaningful unless it’s surrounded by increased consciousness.”
Even now, Stevenson said, “people have so little awareness of what happened on their courthouse square, or in the park behind their church.” He encourages communities to start with a marker that can tell a story: Here a black man asked for an increase in his wages, and so was taken away by a crowd and burned to death.
And no one was punished for the crime. “That’s what made this so terrifying,” Stevenson said. “The banker could do this, and then make you come into his bank the next day and pretend that you didn’t know he had just tortured someone to death.”
That is why Stevenson supported Maryland’s initiative — sponsored by Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), passed unanimously and signed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) — to create a commission. It will hold hearings around the state for three years, seek testimony from relatives of victims and others, and publish documents.
“You have to tell the truth before you get to reconciliation,” Stevenson said, though he cautioned, “We can’t leave it to any small body to do the heavy lifting.”’
Peña-Melnyk agreed, saying she hopes the commission will help everyone confront an ugly history — at least 40 lynchings took place in Maryland. She says it’s especially important now, given the “divisiveness and racism” of President Trump.
Stevenson said he believes the increase in hate crimes reflects not a growth in racism, which has never gone away, but a more tolerant attitude toward it.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been in a good place,” he said. “But now we’ve made it a little less shameful to give voice to expressions of hatred. . . . This is what happens when you waver, when you equivocate, when you look the other way.”
The justice initiative recently opened a third site in Montgomery memorializing 24 victims of lynchings that took place during the 1950s. A fourth will open at the end of the year to document 1,600 lynchings that took place from 1865 through 1876.
Is there something off-putting about a tourism economy rising atop this ugly history?
No, says Stevenson. What is off-putting is that for decades tourists have been coming to Alabama to fish or hunt or go to football games, to visit plantations and “ogle and ooh and aah over the slave owners’ homes,” and have not given a thought to who built those homes and under what conditions.
Maybe that is beginning to change. That would be a little bit of progress in a scary time.