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Friday, January 24, 2020


Pulling no punches, the artwork on the grounds of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice
 in Montgomery (background), Alabama depicts the harsh realities of slavery.

GUEST BLOG / By Jan Percival Lipscomb--Back in 2018, “60 Minutes” special correspondent Oprah Winfrey took her viewers to Montgomery, Alabama in the heart of the Deep South. It was at this spot along the Alabama River that slave traders bought and sold thousands of kidnapped Africans in the old Court Square; where Jefferson Davis occupied the First White House of the Confederacy as its first President, and where seamstress Rosa Parks stood her ground.

Here on a hill overlooking the Alabama State Capitol, Oprah gave us a first look at an architecturally spectacular new memorial, one that most of us had never heard of. Stepping up to tackle one of America’s most tragic and violent chapters, Oprah introduced us to The National Memorial for Peace and Justice; also known as the national lynching memorial, the first and only of its kind.

Each column at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice bears the name of a U.S. county and the names of racial terror victims who were lynched there. Photo: Jose Vazquez.  
Up and down the rows of six-foot tall steel monuments walked a subdued Oprah, guided by her host Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), and visionary behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Skimming the names of lynching victims, Winfrey said, “This is over 4,000 that have been documented, but of course, there are more, thousands more. Will we ever even know how many?”

Stevenson, whose great-grandparents were slaves in Virginia, is a Harvard-trained public interest attorney and the author of the 2014 New York Times best seller, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. A film adaptation of this memoir, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, is now in theaters.

A visit to the lynching memorial starts at eye-level. But as guests proceed to move in a spiral direction, monuments rise from ground level to hang high from above, a symbolic representation of the crime of lynching.

Each of the 800 steel monuments represent a county where a racial terror lynching took place, with the names of its victims engraved on it. The monuments are hung in alphabetical order by state then alphabetical order by county, to make it easier to locate specific geographic locations and individuals. It was distressing, but not surprising, to see my late mother’s home county of Chatham, North Carolina represented in the memorial.

The lynching memorial documents victims killed in the decades after the Civil War, from 1877 to 1950; most murdered in the 11 former Confederate states.

“These folks were promised freedom after Emancipation and what they got instead was terror, trauma, lynching,” said Stevenson.

Many of the men, women and children (yes, women and children) memorialized here had never been identified prior to the research started in 2010 by the Equal Justice Initiative.  Some of their stories are displayed on the walls of the memorial, illustrating a range of allegations: from talking, arguing or corresponding with a white person, to explaining sharecropper rights or registering black voters.

“Thousands of African Americans are unknown victims of racial terror lynchings, whose deaths cannot be documented, many whose names will never be known,” reads an inscription. “They are all honored here.”

To design Montgomery’s six-acre lynching memorial, Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative hired MASS Design Group, a 501(c)(3) Boston-based non-profit known worldwide for its striking work in socially responsible assignments. Memorial grounds include a field where duplicates of each monument lay in wait for their corresponding counties to place them in their own communities. Conversations are now underway with dozens of localities seeking to claim their monument.

“Uneven rusted steel is meant to echo the many shades and skin tones of those African Americans lynched,” is the way Winfrey described the steel monuments. “The markers are suspended to evoke the horror of being strung up and hanged from a tree.”

By integrating architecture, sculpture, art and literature, the memorial puts in context the sheer terror perpetrated on black Americans following the Civil War. It’s not unusual to see guests sitting in quiet contemplation, or struggling with their emotions. On my visit, I ran into a husband and wife from Germany, both well into their eighties. In broken English and through her tears, the woman said to me, “on our shoulders are the Jews.” I understood exactly what she meant.

Rising as a national gateway to conversation, education, inspiration and reconciliation, this brilliant new memorial is surrounded by other important landmarks, including its companion venue, The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Housed in a warehouse where slaves were once imprisoned, the Legacy Museum picks up where the lynching memorial leaves off. Tracing the evolution of racial inequality from slavery to mob violence to segregation, the museum puts its focus on today’s iterations; specifically, mass incarceration and police violence.

Funded entirely by private donations, the lynching memorial and legacy museum have already made a positive impact on Montgomery’s economy, attracting more than 600,000 visitors since opening in April 2018.

Just year, the Alabama Tourism Department named the memorial and museum as the 2019 Attraction of the Year. Summer is prime time, when children are out of school. Organizers hope that one day soon, all Alabama eighth graders will have the opportunity to visit the memorial and museum as part of their standard curriculum.

As Oprah said as she opened her 60 Minutes segment, “There is a reckoning taking place in America over how we remember our history,” and the lynching memorial may help facilitate that reconciliation. 
“There is nothing like it in the country,” offered the New York Times in its April 25, 2018 review. “Which is the point.”
Jan Percival Lipscomb, a respected communications industry professional is based-in San Diego. Photography, except where noted otherwise, is by the author.

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