Ideas and Issues

Why are Montgomery Civil Rights Memorials Private?

July 19, 2021

New Orleans and Montgomery          

Driving back from north Georgia to New Orleans, my son and I had left early enough that we decided to make another midday detour through downtown Montgomery to at least see the Maya Lin designed Civil Rights Memorial with inscriptions of more than 40 men and women who were killed in the struggle, despite the fact that the museum itself was still closed for the pandemic.  The water hits black granite in a circle that starts with 1954’s Brown decision and runs to Martin Luther King’s assassination, and, importantly, includes the names, both known and unknown, of those who died in the struggle.  Very moving!  What we didn’t see was another seventy-four names inside, who were less easily identified in a categorical way, but are also likely martyrs as well.  Having seen the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice earlier on this trip, we were looking for the hat trick.

What caught me up a bit short though was the fact that all three of these memorials were the results of private efforts, not public reckonings.  Doubtlessly, they were powered by significant donations from the public to each of the 501c3 public charities that sponsored, organized, and implemented the memorials, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Equal Justice Initiative, but, given the history of Montgomery and contemporary Alabama, it would have been nice to see the city and state front and center in these memorials.  That’s not to say that both of these nonprofits weren’t more than able to handle the weight.  The SPLC has an endowment pushing $600 million from their financial report and an annual budget of more than $100 million with a policy eschewing any federal money.  EJI is no slacker with 2018 income at over $41 million and assets claimed at $82 million.  Still, it would have been nice to see a bit more reconciliation in addition to this powerful witnessing.

EJI seems to understand this issue to a certain degree.  In trying to replicate the power of their memorials in local communities where there have been racial lynching, they are looking for coalitions as sponsors.  Maybe that’s a lesson learned from their Montgomery experience?  And, maybe not?  There’s huge EJI branding and promotion all over the museum and memorials and a lot of emphasis on the role of lawyer and founder, Bryan Stevenson, in making all of this happen and perhaps spreading EJI. It’s no surprise that the museum and the Civil Rights Memorial are across the street from both of the organization’s offices.  SPLC is only slightly more understated than EJI, and perhaps if Morris Dees were still running the organization and hadn’t seen a bit of his legacy attacked at the end of his career driving SPLC, his role might have also been similarly heralded.

None of these questions diminish their contributions or the clever way they have used these memorials to build their organizations.  Hats off!  My queasiness perhaps comes too much from having spent time with Professor Karen Cox and my reading of her exploration of the history of Confederate monuments and the role played by the private, nonprofit Daughters of the Confederacy and the men’s groups that followed their lead in other communities.

No chance that we’ll be ever fighting against undoing these civil rights and equal justice memorials, because having them under private control and ownership by these large nonprofits assure their future.  Uncomfortably, that’s the same as the situation employed by the confederate sympathizers, apologists, and historical revisionists.  The difference though is one of degree, since their ability to leverage public revenue and support have left ubiquitous monuments throughout the south that are almost impossible to fully eradicate, because they were dug in so deeply with full governmental support.  Even with recent successes, our work has hardly begun.  I can’t help but wish memorials to human and civil rights might be as ubiquitous, transformative, and able to stand the test of time.