Visiting the the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

I had the chance last week to go to Montgomery, Alabama to attend the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum.

The short version of the story is: if you care about the history of the United States, and about questions of race, justice and the criminal justice system, you should find a way to get to Montgomery, to see it for yourself.

Both the museum and monument are flawlessly executed. They somehow co-mingle beauty, sorrow, outrage and objectivity in ways I’ve never experienced.

The museum, which I went to first, is unlike any I’ve ever gone to. While most museums of this type feel like an educational collection of history, facts and stories, the Legacy Museum has a thesis that it states strongly and clearly: that there is clear through-line from the forceful extraction of 12 million Africans from their homes (2 million of whom died in passage), to the institution of slavery, to the history of lynching, to the Civil War, to segregation, and ultimately to today’s criminal justice system which systematically enforces mass incarceration of people of color.

While I thought I was familiar with much of this history, I had not understood, until my time at the Legacy Museum, the stubborn persistence of a system of sanctioned, legalized, socially-acceptable oppression of people of color. I had not seen how this oppression has evolved over time without any proper reckoning. I had not seen, until I saw the Museum and heard the words of Bryan Stevenson, whose Equal Justice Initiative conceived of and executed this massive undertaking, that if you cannot go to South Africa without hearing about and grappling with apartheid, and if you cannot go to Rwanda without hearing about and grappling with the Rwandan genocide, and if you cannot go to Germany without hearing about and grappling with the Holocaust, then you should not be able to come to the United States without hearing about and grappling with the history of slavery and lynching.

If the Legacy Museum is a distilled, forceful argument, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is, even on its opening day, a timeless witness to violence, cruelty, and a hundreds-of-years wide stain on the history and narrative of the United States. As I walked through the memorial, I felt that I was standing on sacred ground, and that I was bearing witness to the souls of lost lynching victims who were killed for walking too close to a white woman, or demanding a receipt at a store, or for acting “disrespectful” to a white person.

Photo credit: Audra Melton for The New York Times

To imagine that black men, women, boys and girls were systematically and publicly murdered, and that, beyond being implicitly sanctioned, these lynchings often drew jeering crowds of hundreds or thousands, crowds so big that food vendors would arrive to sell popcorn…I found this to be so deeply shameful and disturbing that I’m still trying to understand how this could possibly be part of our recent history.

I encourage you to read more about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, and to find a way to see them for yourself.