A powerful reckoning has been taking place at two new sites in Montgomery, Ala.
Since April 2018, the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also called the lynching monument, have been attracting visitors and vividly connecting the dots between despicable chapters in American oppression.
Social justice attorney Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of “Just Mercy,” is the visionary who directed development of these sacred spaces where the public can take stock of a horrific past. At the Legacy Museum, which includes an exhibit of jars filled with dirt from lynching sites, visitors are given a scholarly, stark, uncomfortable look into the existence of blacks in America, starting with slavery and ending with what many consider a subversive program of mistreatment — the prison system. A few blocks from the museum is the lynching monument, a county-by-county enumeration of more than 4,400 documented victims and the disturbing reasons they were killed. Stevenson’s team suspects the actual number of lynching victims is thousands higher.
This is Part 2 of a recent interview with Stevenson. The first part ran a week ago.
Q: How often do you hear white Americans who visit the lynching memorial say it changed their attitude regarding blacks?
A: I think that’s the most encouraging thing that has happened. We hear from lots of people who came to the sites very cynical, very skeptical, very critical. Some of the e-mails I have received, some of the letters have been really powerful. People who didn’t know their county’s history and, when they discovered it, were mad that nobody had told them about what happened there. People who never put it together, these connections between enslavement and lynching and segregation and mass incarceration.
There was somebody at our memorial one day who was just sitting there for four or five hours ... When I got over there he recognized me and said, “I’m from Mississippi. I’m a pastor. I had no idea of all the violence that took place in my country. I know I can’t go back there. I’m just trying to sit here and figure out how I’m going to be different.” And he was crying. I think when you create spaces of truth, truth has a power to convict, to challenge, to disrupt, to motivate, to inspire that nothing else has. And that’s all we are really trying to do, get the truth of this history out there.
We’ve seen it in the African-American community, too. People who said, “My family never talked about this.” You’ll see people just wrapping their arms around some of the monuments and memorials just sobbing. I think that’s liberating, too. We can’t actually deal with trauma and abuse and that weight of that history if we’re not allowed to talk about it, if we don’t feel safe to give voice to some aspects of that.
Q: One of my colleagues who is from Mississippi was appalled to see that the Emmett Till memorial has bullet holes in it. That kind of damage is a little more difficult with the monuments at the Memorial for Peace and Justice?
A: [Nodded head] One of the real challenges is that we have this violent history in the American South where people believe it’s appropriate to use violence to express their disagreement with something and that certainly was true throughout the period of enslavement and segregation and lynching. I think it’s a symptom of the disease which racial bias and bigotry represent. I think we have to see it that way and understand we are going to have to provide a treatment to get people where they need to go. Yes, we have to think a lot about security in ways that I regret, but it’s necessary given our history.
Q: I’m pleased, and not surprised, to see that a lot of people who were in prison work for you now.
A: We have always taken pride in the fact that a lot of people who go to prison come out more motivated, more capable, more committed, more competent, but they can’t get opportunities because of the stigma. We have a re-entry program, so we are thrilled when we can employ and help formerly incarcerated people get back up on their feet. Given the work we do that’s a point of pride for us.
Q: Montgomery is building five new hotels, and the three going up downtown are a direct result of the tourism brought by your sites.
A: I don’t think there is any question that has had a positive economic benefit for everybody in this city. We want people to embrace it because it’s important, but we are not opposed to people recognizing these economic benefits. We’re very supportive of creating a healthier, more vibrant restaurant [scene]. There need to be more hotels, more institutions that can accommodate people who really want to have meaningful experiences in Montgomery.
C.J. can be reached at email@example.com and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.