Lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson talks about opening the National Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, and why every American needs to experience it now.
Earlier this year, Montgomery, Alabama, saw the opening of the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, the first public memorial dedicated to victims of slavery and racial terror in the United States. At the center of the six-acre site you’ll find 800 six-foot-tall rusted-steel monuments—one for every U.S. county where a lynching took place from 1877 through 1950. Each is engraved with the names of the deceased, some “Unknown.” As you descend into the space, the steel columns—suspended higher and higher above your head—evoke hanging bodies. Elsewhere on the memorial grounds, duplicate pillars stand. The hope is that each county with a history of lynching will claim its column and find an appropriate site to display it.
A short walk from the new memorial, the Legacy Museum, located in a former warehouse where slaves were imprisoned, also recently opened to the public. Its immersive exhibits lead visitors through the history of racial injustice in the United States, from slavery to the current era of mass incarceration.
The memorial and museum, which have already drawn thousands of visitors, are the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, founded in 1989 by Bryan Stevenson. The lawyer, human rights activist, MacArthur Fellow, and author of the best-selling book Just Mercy began planning the project in 2010. We talked to him about the power of public monuments and the impact he hopes the memorial and museum will have.
Well, I started my education in a “colored school” in Milton, Delaware. I remember when lawyers came into our community and made them open up the public school to black kids. It took the courts to force the community to do something it would otherwise not do. That motivated me to become a lawyer. And for the last 30 years, we in the Equal Justice Initiative have been working in the courts to protect the rights of vulnerable people, disfavored people, and people who are in jails and prisons. I’m very proud of that work.
But about 10 years ago I began to recognize that the legal framework wasn’t sufficient to accomplish the kinds of justice that I want to see, most acutely in the area of race. Our courts were comfortable with a level of racial bias and discrimination and inequality that I found hard to accept.
It became clear to me that there was this narrative of racial difference that we’ve all just accepted.
I imagine that was especially pronounced in Montgomery. It’s known as both the “Cradle of the Confederacy” and the birthplace of the civil rights movement.
When I moved to the city in the ’80s, there were 59 markers and monuments to the Confederacy, and there wasn’t a single sign that had the word slave or slavery. We had accommodated this narrative that celebrates the era of enslavement, that romanticizes its architects and defenders. That made it clearer to me that we had to do some work.
So in 2013, we decided to put up the first markers in Montgomery to assert the legacy of slavery in that community. There was tremendous resistance. From there, we wanted to replicate that process of creating markers at lynching sites.
What inspired you to turn it all into a memorial and museum?
These markers, however powerful, were fairly isolated. You had to know where they were. You had to find them. I began to recognize that a museum and a memorial would create a place that was more visible and more acceptable. I had seen the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Germany. The power of those spaces—each of which became sort of a magnet for everyone who visited that city—was very influential. I realized that we didn’t have a cultural place in America that presents the history of racial inequality in such a way that it motivates people to say, “Never again.”
What has been the public reception to the memorial and museum?
When you walk through the National Memorial, you first encounter this sculpture by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo called Nkyinkyim. It’s a slavery sculpture. I’ve been struck by how many people have said things like, “You know, I’ve lived my whole life in this country, but I’ve never seen a sculpture in America that depicts the brutality of slavery and tries to express the inhumanity of it while giving voice to the dignity of those who are enslaved.” We name previously unnamed victims of racial-terror lynching, and visitors say, “I didn’t know.” The impact on people’s knowledge and understanding has been exciting for me to see.
The museum gets the same sort of reactions. We’ve all heard spirituals—usually sung in very safe, ornate, comfortable places—but when you hear a spiritual like “Lord, How Come Me Here” being sung by a woman in chains in a slave pen, it has a very different impact, a different resonance.
International visitors have a conception of America that doesn’t emphasize and illuminate the parts of American history that are difficult. And because we don’t talk about it, it’s even harder for international visitors to appreciate that we are a nation haunted by slavery, terrorism, and segregation. The memorial and museum allow them to understand some of the conflicts and tensions they read about—for example, after an unarmed black person is shot by the police.
How do you see this project fitting into the African American narrative, perhaps even altering the black experience in the United States today?
You know, after Emancipation it wasn’t safe to talk about the hardships of slavery. During the era of racial terror [1877–1950], it wasn’t safe to talk about lynching. It wasn’t safe to talk about the humiliation of segregation. We’ve made it very difficult to talk about race and racial inequality in this country. It’s almost considered impolite, disruptive. So I’m hoping that these sites lift the burden that is created by this forced silence about the African American experience. I hope African American travelers find some liberation in seeing this history told in a direct and honest way. But ultimately, this is American history—it’s for all Americans to wrestle with this legacy.
What does it mean to you that these sites opened during the Trump administration?
I’d like to think a lot of what we’re seeing in this moment is temporary. But to the extent that people have tried to equivocate on the shamefulness of white supremacy and racially motivated violence, it’s important that there be places to rebut that and to challenge us to not see anything acceptable about that legacy and history. I do think that these sites are particularly urgent now.
What do you want people to not only think about, but do after visiting?
We want them to think about this history that haunts us and the truth we need to tell, but to understand that if we accept that truth, we can actually move toward repair. I think that there’s a lot that we can do to create a new cultural landscape. We’ve asked people who visit the memorial who live in communities where racial-terror lynchings took place to begin conversations where they can ultimately claim their monument and bring it back to their community. That has real potential to move our nation forward.
Do you think a project like this can ever right such grievous wrongs?
I do. I look at places like Rwanda, that have suffered horrific violence and genocide. There are lots of people in prison who were perpetrators of the genocide, but there’s a plan to ultimately have those people released. There is a willingness to recover, to restore.
And when I think about the fact that they’re dealing with a horrific era of violence that happened in my lifetime and have made that kind of progress, then I have to believe that our nation, after 150 years, is finally ready to do the kind of work that can lead to enormous progress. It won’t happen overnight, but I do think it’s possible to create a different future.
Montgomery is home to several important civil rights sites, but must-see destinations are located throughout the country. These are Bryan Stevenson’s top recommendations.
1. America’s Black Holocaust Museum
Since the building closed its doors 10 years ago, Milwaukee’s ABHM has operated as an online museum, exploring the African American experience from pre-captivity to the present day. “Its founder was a man who escaped a lynching in the 1930s, Dr. James Cameron who passed away in 2006. With the onset of the Great Recession, there were no funds to sustain the site,” says Stevenson. “But supporters are coming together, and it will open again [later this] year.”
2. Banneker-Douglass Museum
This year, Maryland’s official museum of African American heritage, located in Annapolis, celebrates the bicentennial of the birth of native son Frederick Douglass, the former slave turned social activist and the first black citizen to become a high-ranking U.S. government official. Film screenings, lectures, and other events are taking place statewide.
3. Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
This Smithsonian-affiliated center in Birmingham, Alabama, highlights the city’s most significant civil rights events. Inside, visitors will see the cell door behind which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” An exhibit by the Alabama photographer Chester Higgins Jr., Foot Soldiers: Profiles of Courage Then and Now, runs through November.
4. Richmond Slave Trail
Between 1830 and 1860, Richmond, Virginia, was the biggest source of enslaved Africans on the East Coast. This self-guided walking tour starts at Manchester Docks, a major port in the slave trade, and continues through former slave markets and “the spaces where enslavement was most prominent,” Stevenson says. “In acknowledging that legacy, I think it’s a really worthwhile trip to make.”
5. Exclusion Exhibit
“We put Japanese Americans in concentration camps. It was a horrific act of bigotry, a violation of basic human and civil rights, and we haven’t really confronted that legacy,” says Stevenson. San Francisco’s Korematsu Institute is trying to change this. Inspired by the late activist Fred Korematsu, who resisted imprisonment and took his case to the Supreme Court (which recently overturned the 1944 decision against him), the educational nonprofit helped create The Presidio’s exhibit Exclusion: The Presidio's Role in World War II Japanese American Incarceration through spring 2019).
6. Mississippi Civil Rights Museum
The museum opened last year in Jackson and focuses on the period from 1945 to 1976. “When a space unashamedly tells the narrative of African Americans who resisted segregation because things were so brutal, it’s important for that to be recognized,” Stevenson says. “It’s brand-new, and it has that kind of unvarnished truth, which I think is critical for people to understand.”
7. National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
In Cincinnati, near the banks of the Ohio River—that barrier between South and North—the center presents the journey of slaves on their way to freedom. As Stevenson says, “It tells an important part of American history, which is the effort of resistance and rebellion that so many African Americans committed themselves to advancing.”