Lynchings in Steel

Ideas and Issues
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July 16, 2021

Montgomery      

Driving to Atlanta on a monthly basis to support the ACORN Tenants Union, Interstate 65 turns southeast onto I-85 below Montgomery.  Luring my son, Chaco, with me on this trip, I promised we would take a look at Montgomery and some of the new civil rights memorials there.  We determined to see the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice, developed in 2018, and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, both developed by the Equal Justice Institute, a nonprofit legal operation largely directed by attorney Bryan Stevenson, and to try to see the Civil Rights Memorial on the way back.

These are powerful and disturbing experiences.  The Legacy Museum is a smaller exhibition in a building connected to slavery, while the Memorial is large and overpowering on a six-acre hillside eye to eye with the city.  The Museum gives a brief history of slavery, but its focus seems more pointedly and uniquely on the current crisis of incarceration with an interactive jail visit with prisoners and full-length pictures of jail conditions, including one of juveniles in Orleans Parish Prison, too close to home.  No photos are allowed, so it’s hard to convey in simple words its effectiveness.

The Memorial on the other hand is not far away and it bowls you over.  Driving the wide streets of downtown Montgomery to get there, we passed a statue of Hank Williams strumming his guitar in the middle of a street, which was disjointing.  Arriving at the Memorial, we didn’t question why everyone was screened going in, likely as much for weapons as haters, we imagined.

The pavilion has some 800 rusting steel slabs with names and dates of confirmed lynchings in the county or parish hanging down closely and randomly in an almost foreboding way. Many are hard to read and catching the sun in such a way that you feel personally imprisoned as well.  Once outside, identical slabs are organized by states, so it is easier to pick out places that many of us know too well through family connections or where we have lived and still live in the South.  There are 4000 names.  They go on forever.  Some have only one or two names.  Others, like Phillips County, scene of the Elaine Massacre, in Arkansas have way too many.

It’s impossible not to leave the Memorial not depressed and angry.  These killings are documented to 1950.  We can pretend it got better after that, although elsewhere at the center across from the memorial are names killed in the ‘50s, as well.

It’s one thing to tell about it, but another thing to do something about it.  I didn’t learn until later that there is something that might be done.

The Equal Justice Initiative has invited each county named on a monument in the pavilion to claim its duplicate and set it up in a public site on home turf, preferably at a spot where a lynching took place. The idea is both to spread the word about a suppressed history of racial terrorism, and to honor the victims of it. Whether the monuments will be adopted, and when, and by whom, remains to be seen. (So far, there have been inquiries, but no commitments.)

I stumbled onto this reading a review later of all of the new memorials in Montgomery that are locked into a battle of the bands with the old memorials to the Confederacy and whatever else in different decades.

Maybe some have claimed the history of their community’s evil by now?  If not, it gives us work to do to raise the issue far and wide to duplicate this horror locally to warn against the hate that has been and what may still be there and yet to come.