National Memorial for Peace and Justice documents our nation’s troubled racial history
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — You walk out of the fierce summer sun into a shadowy forest of rectangular steel columns, row upon row of them, six or seven feet tall, covered in rust the color of dried blood.
It takes a minute to adjust to the dim light. Then you begin to see the names inscribed on the columns: Claud Neal, Jackson County, Fla., lynched in 1934 for the alleged rape and murder of a white woman; Joe Coe, Douglas County, Neb., lynched in 1891 for allegedly assaulting a white child; Emmett Till, Leflore County, Miss., lynched in 1955 for flirting with a white woman.
Those are only three of the thousands of names written on the 800 columns at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a place that only opened in 2018 but feels as ancient and as sacred as Stonehenge, a silent but devastating testimony to how Americans terrorized and murdered other Americans for wanting to live as full citizens of this country.
As you go further into the National Memorial, the columns, all bolted to the ceiling, seem to lift themselves off the floor. They are initially at eye-level, but the floor gradually slopes downward until the columns hang over your head, an unsubtle but powerful reminder of how so many died.
As the song goes:
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”
Is it any wonder that conservatives don’t want this history taught in schools?
White people’s refusal to admit that America has not been and is not now a paragon of virtue, “great” because she is “good,” a nation specially blessed by God, instead of a country with brilliant founding documents which has not yet lived up to its promises nor dealt with its painful past.
It might seem odd to find this beautiful, uncompromising monument here on a green hill here in Montgomery, the first capital of the Confederacy, of antebellum verandas and white pillars. You can stand on the spot where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated president of the CSA — it’s marked with a golden star on the marble steps of the Capitol. You can see a portrait of arch-segregationist Gov. George Wallace inside, and visit the nearby “First White House of the Confederacy,” where the myth of the Lost Cause thrives.
But although Montgomery has long been a by-word for race hatred, it’s also the mother of the resistance: the 1955-56 bus boycott and the site of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first ministry. The headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the civil rights legal firm which sues white supremacists and tracks hate groups of whatever complexion, is one block over from King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
Now Montgomery is the home of the Equal Justice Initiative, founded by lawyer and MacArthur “genius grant” honoree Bryan Stevenson. You may have read his book, Just Mercy, or seen the movie based on it. Stevenson and other EJI lawyers have managed to prove the innocence of many languishing in American prisons and set them free.
The EJI’s cultural projects have made sure that Montgomery doesn’t only celebrate the “romance” of the Old South but also maps where enslaved people were shipped up the Alabama River, the pens in which they were kept, and the site of the city’s huge slave market, now called Court Square, where an estimated 135,000 human beings were bought and sold between 1804 and 1862.
This is the kind of history Republican-controlled state legislatures, boards of education, and governors in Florida, Georgia, Texas, Idaho, Montana, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arizona, and South Dakota don’t want discussed in schools and colleges.
None of that stuff about “unconscious bias” or privilege or oppression, and certainly no mention of critical race theory, which is, in their eyes, some kind of crypto-Marxist indoctrination designed to make white people feel bad (and white people hate feeling bad) instead of a framework for delineating the obvious truth that our systems of labor, education, housing, health care, and criminal justice have long been systemically racist.
This shouldn’t even be an argument: Look at the history of red-lining, the radically longer sentences for Black people who commit the same crime as white people, the prevalent under-treatment of pain in Black patients. It doesn’t mean that every white person is a racist.
(Though you might reasonably harbor doubts about certain elected officials in Florida).
Sad thing is, the people who most need to experience the extraordinary confrontation with America’s sins that is the National Memorial will never visit — people like Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who tapped into the old racist trope of disease-ridden Black people when he blamed them, falsely, for his state’s COVID-19 surge.
Over the past 400 years, Black people have been blamed for all kinds of terrible things: murder, rape, daring to assume that they were owed justice the same as white people. EJI’s memorial tells a whole sorry, painful series of their stories: in Oxford, Miss., in 1894, a white man tried to assault the daughter of a Black man. Jack Brownlee, the Black man, demanded the white man be arrested, and was lynched for it.
Mississippi’s sitting governor, Tate Reeves, could learn a thing or two here in Montgomery, not just about the likes of Jack Brownlee and the 654 other lynchings that happened in his state between Reconstruction and 1950, but about the ones going on in 21st century Mississippi: There’ve been eight suspected lynchings of Black men and boys over the past two decades, the most recent in 2019.
Surely Gov. Reeves loves history: At Millsaps College in the 1990s, he was a member of the Kappa Alpha Order, a fraternity in which members have long dressed up in Confederate uniforms for parties with young women in hoop skirts to celebrate the Old South.
The KAs call themselves “Southern gentlemen.” The lynch mob that murdered 14-year-old Warren Powell in Fulton County, Ga., for “frightening” a white girl in 1889; the people who killed David Walker and his entire family in Hickman, Ky., in 1908 because Walker supposedly used “inappropriate language” while speaking to a white woman; the vigilantes who hanged Frank Dodd of DeWitt, Ark., in 1916 for “annoying” a white woman — well, they probably also thought of themselves as “Southern gentlemen,” upholding the “Southern Way of Life.”
Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, two governors committed to making it harder for minorities to exercise the franchise, might be interested to know that it wasn’t just being suspected of attacking, scaring, or sassing white women that could get Black people killed — voting was also seen as a lynch-worthy crime.
In 1946, Maceo Snipes of Taylor County, Ga., who’d recently returned from fighting fascism in Europe, was shot by a gang of white men for voting in the Democratic primary. Earlier, on Nov. 2, 1920, in Ocoee, Fla., at least 30 Black residents were murdered to keep them from voting.
Nobody was actually killed for trying to vote in the 2018 elections in Waller County, Texas, but students at historically Black Prairie View A&M faced threats and enormous barriers to voting. By the time people of color try to vote in 2022, the Texas Legislature — the white men determined to protect what in 2021 they still called the “purity of the ballot box” — they’ll be met with a Byzantine array of restrictions and obstacles designed to stop them.
Meanwhile, in Florida, nonviolent felons who have paid their debt to society still can’t get their right to vote back without jumping through endless hoops, a practice that began in Jim Crow Florida to cut down on Black people going to the ballot box.
Conservatives insist that all those old bad things are behind us. America has changed. We might have done a few racist things back then, a long time ago, but everything’s fine now! We’re all equal now! Hell, we even elected a Black president that time.
Go and read the names in the Montgomery Memorial. Then experience the exhibits in the Legacy Museum in which people of color tell about being jailed for minor offenses or wrongfully convicted, even placed on Death Row. Read about Crystal Mason, a Black Texas woman sentenced to five years or voting, or Hervis Rogers, a Black man who thought his parole was over and waited six hours in line to cast his ballot.
Turns out he was wrong. He now faces up to 40 years in prison.
This is now, not 100 years ago or 60 years ago. America today. The Equal Justice Initiative is here to remind us that Jim Crow isn’t gone. Our history still warps our present.
That over-used William Faulkner quotation about the South is true of the whole country: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Veteran journalist Diane Roberts is a columnist for the Florida Phoenix, which first published this essay.