Shirah Dedman didn’t know how she’d react when she saw her great-grandfather’s name memorialized in Montgomery, Alabama.
Then she found it etched on a coffin-shaped marker and labeled on a jar of soil recovered from Shreveport, Louisiana. That’s where in 1912, a mob grabbed him, strung his body from a tree, and mutilated it with bullets.
“It was so hurtful. I was crying,” said the 36-year-old from Oakland, California. “I felt a lot of anger. I felt frustration. I wanted to talk. I wanted to be quiet. There were so many emotions looking at that.”
But she’s certain about one thing: The public acknowledgment of the racial terror white Americans perpetrated on African Americans is long overdue. The new Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice documents more than 4,000 victims of lynching from 1877 to 1950, public killings that have been largely ignored and publicly unacknowledged. Until now.
“Our memorial will become a report card about which communities have owned up to their history and which haven’t.”
The site, which opened April 26, has already made a big impression and is spurring a long overdue national conversation. Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic Philip Kennicott calls it the most important new monument in a generation and compares it to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. It makes Montgomery, already a key site in civil rights history, an even more essential stop for anyone seeking to understand the country’s relationship with race.
The monument, located on a hill overlooking the city that was briefly the capital of the Confederacy, consists of 800 rusted steel columns, one for every county or jurisdiction where a lynching occurred. Each is inscribed with the names of victims, like Dedman’s relative. The rectangular monuments hang from an open canopy, first at eye-level. But as visitors walk through the site, the wooden floor slopes down. Eventually the six-foot-tall columns suspend from above.
Some victims were accused of rape or murder, others of petty infractions. Dedman’s great-grandfather, for example, was grabbed after a court found him not guilty of passing a note to a white woman, which was then a crime. At times, the mob violence attracted thousands of spectators. Bodies were torn apart, with pieces taken as souvenirs. Commemorative postcards were printed.
“We’re burdened by this history—I hope our institution and memorial motivates people to say never again.”
“We’re burdened by this history,” says Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which planned the $15 million, privately funded project. He said designers were inspired by the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. “I hope our institution and memorial motivates people to say never again.”
The project also presents a challenge to U.S. communities whose histories include documented lynchings. Outside the main pavilion, duplicates of each steel column line a courtyard. Organizers are urging each jurisdiction to claim their monument for public display. “Our memorial will become a report card about which communities have owned up to their history and which haven’t,” Stevenson says.
A companion museum, located several blocks from the memorial, is set in a warehouse that once imprisoned enslaved people. Through interactive exhibits and first-hand accounts,it makes the argument that slavery led inevitably to lynchings as white Americans tried to maintain power over newly freed former slaves and that lynchings gave way to Jim Crow–era segregation, which transformed into our current era of mass incarceration.
The Legacy Museum’s exhibits also reveal largely forgotten history, like the Red Summer of 1919, which saw race riots and dozens of lynchings across the country.
At one exhibit, built to resemble a prison interview booth, visitors pick up a phone to hear videotaped comments from former convicts like Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row until he was exonerated in 2015 with the help of the Equal Justice Initiative.
The memorial and museum join Montgomery’s already significant collection of civil rights sites. With this monumental new addition to the city, now is an ideal time to explore its crucial history.
Alabama’s capital was home to two of the movement’s most well-known activists. A young reverend from Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr., entered the public spotlight in 1956 after Rosa Parks, a seamstress, refused to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger. At the Rosa Parks Museum, located at the site of her arrest, interactive exhibits show how that moment of defiance sparked the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first major confrontation of the modern civil rights movement.
King’s carefully preserved home, the Dexter Parsonage Museum, takes visitors back to the era. Perhaps the most moving spot is the kitchen, where after a bomb threat, King famously had a moment of doubt about the sacrifices he was making to fight racial injustice.
The Freedom Rides Museum preserves the Greyhound Bus station where young protesters were attacked in 1961 as they traveled across the South to fight the continued segregation of interstate transportation.
Other significant Montgomery sites include King’s church, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist, and nearby First Baptist Church, where the Freedom Riders and a crowd of 1,500 supporters were surrounded by a white mob. There’s also the state capitol, where King addressed thousands after the 54-mile voting-rights march from Selma.
From Montgomery, it’s simple to drive the National Historic Trail that retraces the route from Selma. At the halfway point, a visitor center explains how the denial of voting rights and the police shooting of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson prompted the protest. From there, it’s a 25-minute drive to Selma, site of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where marchers, including current U.S. Representative John Lewis, were beaten by police on what became known as Bloody Sunday.
For many visitors, walking the span over the muddy Alabama River is a pilgrimage. And now too, so is a visit to Montgomery’s haunting—and necessary—memorial to victims of racial terror.