The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) plans to build a national memorial to victims of lynching in Montgomery, Alabama, which is expected to open in 2018. This memorial project relating to America’s history of racial terror and lynching will become the most ambitious in the nation on this topic.
The Equal Justice Initiative will open the nation’s first memorial dedicated to lynching victims and a new museum dedicated to slavery on April 26 in Montgomery.
EJI has purchased six acres of land atop a rise that overlooks the City of Montgomery and out to the American South, where terror lynchings were most prevalent.
No prominent monument or memorial exists to commemorate the thousands of African Americans who were lynched during the era of racial terrorism in America. EJI has documented over 4000 racial terror lynchings of black men, women, and children, who were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. The era of racial terror had a profound impact on the entire nation, as millions of black people fled to urban communities in the North and West as refugees from violent racism. The phenomenon of racial terror lynchings has not received much cultural recognition in contrast with the thousands of plaques, statues, and monuments that record, celebrate, and lionize the Confederacy and Confederate leaders. In the American South, there are hundreds of memorials to the defenders of slavery, and leaders who championed racial segregation and white supremacy, including many who perpetrated violent crimes against black citizens during the era of racial terror. In Montgomery alone there are 59 monuments and memorials to the Confederacy.
Why Build a Lynching Memorial?
In her seminal work on lynching, On the Courthouse Lawn, scholar Sherrilyn A. Ifill persuasively argues that there is a critical need for memorialization, an urgent need to change the landscape with regard to the history of lynching in America: “Public spaces have yet to become part of the formal reparation or racial reconciliation process for Black Americans.” Professor Ifill, who now leads the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, champions the need for public memorials, an idea that has been expressed all over the world but not in the United States. Scholars including Martha Minow, Dean of the Harvard Law School, have long understood that continued silence about mass atrocities “compounds victimization” and tells victims and the nation as a whole that “their pain does not matter.” EJI believes that there is a path to recovery and reconciliation when we tell the truth about our history in the public square.
A history of racial injustice must be acknowledged, and mass atrocities and abuse must be recognized and remembered, before a society can recover from mass violence. Public commemoration plays a significant role in prompting community-wide reconciliation. EJI director Bryan Stevenson has argued that “our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.” We all must engage this history more honestly, and a memorial creates that opportunity.
EJI has partnered with MASS Design Group, where director Michael Murphy and a team of visionary architects design buildings that promote healing: hospitals, clinics, schools, and, memorials. MASS created a stunning space for reflection and truth-telling in the archives at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, a country that, like Germany and South Africa, found it necessary to build memorials to reflect on the atrocities of their past. As Murphy observes, “We have yet to do this in the United States.”
EJI and MASS have worked together to design a classical structure for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, consisting of 800 columns – one for each county where EJI documented racial terror lynchings. When visitors enter the memorial, the ground drops and perception shifts as visitors realize that the columns that appeared to be holding up the structure are actually monuments suspended from above, which evoke the lynchings that took place in the public square. Over 4000 names of lynching victims will be inscribed on these monuments.