The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opening Thursday, stands high on a hillside overlooking downtown Montgomery, Ala. Beyond the buildings you can see the winding Alabama River and hear the distant whistle of a train — the nexus that made the city a hub for the domestic slave trade.
And that’s where the experience begins as visitors encounter a life-size sculpture in bronze of six people in rusting shackles, including a mother with a baby in her arms.
Pain and terror: America remembers its past
“You see the agony and the anguish and the suffering in these figures,” says Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, the non-profit legal advocacy group that created the memorial.
“It’s people in distress,” Stevenson says. “And I don’t think we’ve actually done a very good job of acknowledging the pain and agony, the suffering, the humiliation, the complete denial of humanity that slavery created for black people on this continent.”
Stevenson serves as a tour guide through the somber space – which remembers the nation’s history of racial terror, representing a journey from slavery to the period after the Civil War, and before the civil rights movement.
“No reconciliation without an acknowledgement”
The memorial houses 800 steel blocks, each 6 feet tall, suspended from above, and arranged in a square surrounding a grassy courtyard. There’s a monument for each county where racial killings occurred, including one from Carroll County, Miss., “where nearly two dozen people were lynched,” Stevenson says.
They resemble elongated gravestones, etched with the names of victims.
The Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4,000 “racial terror” lynchings — extrajudicial killings, often by hanging, for alleged crimes – in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950.
People like Arthur Sinclair — a black minister lynched in Florida for performing an interracial wedding.
As you walk through the memorial, the orientation of the hanging monuments changes from eye level to overhead, evoking the way many lynching victims were hung, often in public spaces.
“They lifted these bodies up as a statement to the entire African-American community,” Stevenson says. “They wanted to lift up this violence this terror this tragedy for others to see.”