To Tear Down Racism, Build More Memorials

Social Justice

There is a gap in acknowledging the victims of slavery and racial violence in the American South—the millions of Africans and African Americans enslaved, tortured, murdered, and discriminated against from slavery and through subsequent decades as we’ve slowly backed away from our nation’s most persistent and painful wound. More than 150 years following the Civil War, we do not honor their lives with plaques, statues, or monuments.

Bryan Stevenson, Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, 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."

It's time to tell the full story. That means creating space—both physically and in our national dialog—to confront our nation's history of racial inequality and economic injustice.

EJI is leading the way. In Spring 2018, the nonprofit opens its Memorial to Peace and Justice, a vast and poignant space in Montgomery dedicated to victims of lynching throughout the South. Concurrently, EJI opens their museum, From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.

Through painstaking research, EJI has documented “more than 4,000 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.” Nowhere in America does a prominent monument or memorial exist to commemorate these lives; while in Montgomery alone there are 59 monuments and memorials to the Confederacy. A recent Alabama law ensures Confederate landmarks are protected.

EJI’s vision for the memorial, made reality by MASS Design Group, presents 800 suspended columns representing the 800 counties across 12 states where lynchings took place, each column inscribed with the names of the murdered. But the Memorial does much more than create a space for reflection in Montgomery—it invites the residents of these 800 counties to confront their history. Outside the main space lay 800 additional columns with a standing invitation for each county to retrieve a column and install it back home.

Our neglect to memorialize human lives and address this shameful period in our history is a symbol of our collective denial. Through efforts like the Memorial to Peace and Justice, and education efforts like EJI’s Community Remembrance Project, we can enrich and expand our national discourse on race.

We can advance a national healing process that, however slowly, moves us forward as a country united.