The New Lynching Memorial and Legacy Museum Force Us to Bear Witness to Our Whole American Truth

Sculpture by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto Bamfo at the beginning of the National Memorial to Peace and Justice
Photo: Human Pictures (Equal Justice Initiative)

It’s time to take this story to the masses.
It’s time to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
May the other side of his-story now be entered into the record, the narrative, the myth of these United States of America. Forever and ever. Amen.

“We love talking about 19th-century history and not talk about slavery,” quips Bryan Stevenson to a room full of reporters gathered at his Equal Justice Initiative center on Monday. We congregated at his loftlike office in downtown Montgomery, Ala., after spending the morning touring the soon-to-be-opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice, to honor the victims of lynchings, and the separately housed Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration.


On what was coincidentally Confederate Memorial Day, a day that saw Montgomery’s downtown-area sun-drenched streets eerily deserted, the 58-year-old civil rights attorney says it’s high time that the other half of the story be told. The Confederate propagandists have had their say via statues and memorials, history books and song, but those people brutalized, sold and killed in the name of white hegemony (and capital) must also be entered into the record of American history.

Bryan Stevenson
Photo: Brad Barket (Getty Images for Politico)

“We need to find ways to live in this country and talk about things we haven’t talked about,” Stevenson says. He acknowledges that a memorial to lynching victims may be uncomfortable for some, but that it’s not about retribution.

“It isn’t about punishment,” he says, noting that Americans have been acculturated to a very punitive society. Stevenson wants the same grace and credo for those he has defended on death row for the last 30 years to also apply to white Southerners: “Each of us is better than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”


But just as a defendant must elocute on his or her crimes before the court, we cannot reconcile our past and move forward as a country until we begin to acknowledge its basest barbarism inflicted on its citizens. Heavily influenced by Germany’s atonement after the Holocaust and South Africa’s truth-and-reconciliation endeavors after the fall of apartheid, Stevenson says that to “move past” slavery and lynchings, we must first understand it. Without that, there can be no justice.

Montgomery rests by the Alabama River. By 1860 it had become the nexus of the domestic slave trade, where millions of African Americans were warehoused and sold right in the town square. Montgomery’s port was the entry point to slavery in the “lower South,” where its practice was especially brutal; after 1833, the entire state of Alabama forbade free blacks from entering it.


Today, Alabama’s capital city is an open, sloping metropolis with wide roads leading to the state Capitol sitting high atop a hill. Known as “Gumptown,” Montgomery is as famous for the church where a 25-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. incubated his first nonviolent civil rights action as it is for being the city from which the telegram to fire on Fort Sumter was sent, starting the Civil War.

Throughout the historic downtown area, this racial dichotomy stands; the city seal actually proclaims that Montgomery is both the “Cradle of the Confederacy” and the “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.” There is a slab of marble honoring Jefferson Davis across the street from a much newer one paying tribute to Martin King. It houses both the Rosa Parks and the Hank Williams museums.


It is the location of fierce resistance to change and of the status quo. It historically has been a place where black lives were constricted in ways large and small, the threat of violence always lurking if they dared step out of line.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

National Memorial for Peace and Justice, aka the lynching memorial, in Montgomery, Ala. It will open to the public on April 26, 2018.
Photo: Human Images (EJI)

The serene, well-designed memorial to the more than 4,000 African-American lynching victims is all about historical context. The somber, sacred space, standing atop a hill and overlooking the Capitol, begins with slavery. When visitors enter the sacred space, they first encounter a sculpture of seven African men, women and children chained in various states of bondage, designed by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo.

Because the rest of the exhibit is so abstract, the designers wanted the first encounter to be that of human beings—real people kidnapped and brought through West Africa to begin their bloody sojourn here.


You then go up a slope, with placards giving context to lynching. (Nearly 25 percent of those lynched were accused of sexual assault, nearly 30 percent accused of murder. The means of death ranged from hanging to shooting to burning to stabbing to beating to drowning.)

Lynching memorial, corridor 3
Photo: Human Pictures (Equal Justice Initiative)

And at the very top of the hill, the visitor encounters the first pillars at eye level. You begin to read the names on the 800 corten-steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a lynching took place. With each corridor, the monuments with the names of those killed begin to rise. Until they are above you, hanging.

To the side, there are stories of some of the individuals: “Mary Turner was lynched, with her unborn child, at Folsom Bridge in the Brooks-Lowndes County line in Georgia in 1918 for complaining about the recent lynching of her husband, Hayes Turner.” Or “Rachel Moore was lynched in 1921 in Rankin County, Mississippi, by a mob searching for her son-in-law.” Or “Ernest Green and Charlie Lang, both 14, were lynched in Shubuta, Mississippi, in 1942 after a white girl said they were threatening.” Or “A black man recently discharged from the army and a black woman were lynched near Pickens Mississippi, in 1919 for writing a note to a white woman.”


In the 6-acre park surrounding the memorial is a field of identical monuments, laid out like so many bronze coffins, waiting to be claimed by the communities where the racial terror happened. According to the EJI, over time, this area will serve as a “report card” on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of its past and which have not.

The Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration

As you enter the darkness of the Legacy Museum, about a 15-minute walk from the lynching memorial, one of the first quotes you come upon is that of Harriet Tubman: “Slavery is the next thing to hell.”


After walking down a dark corridor, you then encounter black-and-white holograms of slaves penned in small cells (the museum itself is on the site of a warehouse where livestock and enslaved people were kept before auction). When you approach the bars, the enslaved person inside begins to tell their story. There is one of a mother who keeps hearing her children’s voices; that of a man who tells of how his mother begged for him, then 6, to be bought with her (although she was kicked away from the white man buying her flesh, the two were eventually reunited); that of two small children, looking lost; that of women wailing spirituals.

It will haunt you.

From slavery to mass incarceration
Photo: Human Images (Equal Justice Institute)

There are other holograms, too, a bit farther down, but this time you sit down and pick up a phone as if you are visiting a prison. And the prisoners, now in color, tell you their stories. Like Robert Caston, who, at 17 years old, received a life sentence to be served at the notorious Angola State Prison in Louisiana. And about how one sound dictated every aspect of his waking life.

“Whistle do everything in Angola,” he says resignedly of the prison built on an actual plantation. “And that’s something you just have to live with.”


Caston says that at Angola, prisoners were sent to the fields to pick cotton and cut sugarcane every single day; it was never too rainy, cold or hot. He spoke about how the racial attitudes of the guards caused constant misery, and how they’d take out their frustration on the men in their charge. He recounted how his life was one of cruel subjugation. It’s not hard to draw the conclusion that those in holograms penned in cages from 100 years before were not that different.

The cavernous one-room museum utilizes technology everywhere, including a running video by the incredibly talented Molly Crabapple, who has worked with EJI before. There is a wall of actual signs from times of segregation (“No Blacks, Jews, Dogs Allowed”), and a timeline of Supreme Court rulings that document the African-American experience via the courts (1842’s Prigg v. Pennsylvania to 2013’s Shelby v. Holder).

There is an area with images of freedom-fighting heroes, some permanent, some changing, some I didn’t know and plan to look up (Fred Korematsu, Jo Ann Robinson, Johnnie Carr, Josiah Henson, Mahommah Baquaqua, Scipio Africanus Jones, Albert Turner, Mary Eliza Mahoney).


There was a wall of dirt collected at the sites of lynchings in Alabama, like a humongous spice rack, or an earth-tone representation of the skins of those murdered.

Dirt taken from the sites of lynching. Some of the victims are named, some will forever remain anonymous.
Photo: Human Images (EJI)

As an attorney, Stevenson makes his case that slavery and mass incarceration are directly, inextricably linked, hence the name of the museum. It is made plain that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery except for those in prisons; that the highest rates of incarcerated African Americans are in former slaveholding states; and that today, Alabama’s rates of incarceration are among the highest in the world, surpassing those of rogue nations like Syria or Iraq.

One wall of the museum displays this fact: “Today the Alabama State Constitution still mandates that there be racial segregation in education with ‘separate schools for white and colored children.’” In the year 2018. Despite efforts to get the language changed, it remains.


If Montgomery, surely “a community shaped by slavery,” does not yet know its past, how can the rest of us? Many locals acknowledged to Stevenson that the Legacy Museum will be the first time they’ve ever seen a monument to this vilest and most peculiar institution.

“We have to be willing to tell the truth about our past,” says Stevenson. He says he still has hope that these two sites will motivate us all to action.


So help us God.

The Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice will both open on Thursday, April 26. Tickets can be purchased here.


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About the author

Angela Helm

Ms. Bronner Helm is a Contributing Editor at The Root. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.