Alabama Is Home To The Nation's First Lynching Memorial And One Of The Most Controversial Prison Sentencings Of The Year
The moment someone enters the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery they’re greeted by 800 six-foot weathered steel monuments showing the names of over 4,000 African-American lynching victims from counties throughout the United States. Some of the monuments are level; others hang from the ceiling like lifeless bodies. The structure of it all is meant to evoke dread, discomfort — no matter where you turn you’re faced with a gruesome and horrific part of America’s past.
The Equal Justice Initiative‘s (EJI) National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors black people who were lynched across the country between 1877 and 1950. Erected on top of a hill where slaves used to work, the memorial oversees downtown Montgomery and is a 15-minute walk from its companion piece — the Legacy Museum.
Built on a former warehouse where slaves were imprisoned, the museum chronicles the country’s history of slavery, lynching, segregation, and mass incarceration. Both the memorial and museum serve as symbols of change in a city that, for over 150 years, has been known as the “Cradle of the Confederacy.”
Inspired by the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, the memorial is the manifestation of years spent unearthing documents of the thousands of racial terror lynchings that took place in the South. Archives, county libraries, descendants of lynching victims, EJI founder — and Just Mercy author — Bryan Stevenson and a small group of lawyers ventured through counties from Alabama to Texas for the project.
Both the recently opened memorial and museum are rooted in Stevenson’s work as a lawyer, having seen the way America’s criminal justice system mistreats black people for almost 30 years. Based in Montgomery, EJI has offered legal services to poor people in prison since its founding in 1989. Altogether, Stevenson and his staff have won reversals, relief or release for over 125 wrongly convicted prisoners on death row.
“We still live in a country where black and brown people are presumed dangerous and guilty and that burden weighs on us, and the narrative has to change,” Stevenson said during this year’s Skoll World Forum. “That’s why we’re building this museum, that’s why we’re building a memorial to help us reflect on this history.”
The memorial and museum is a commentary on the evolution of black captivity and death. Slavery didn’t just disappear after being abolished: it adapted and mutated, becoming an epidemic now known as mass incarceration. Other symptoms came from slavery’s end too. Black codes, Jim Crow laws, redlining, segregation — white supremacy still affects this nation in so many ways. Which is why the memorial and museum are important. They’re an unflinching reminder of the damage this country’s past has caused for its present and, possibly, its future, if nothing changes.
To have these institutions in Montgomery — Alabama’s capital — is significant. Montgomery was an integral part of the proliferation of slavery throughout the country, with the city serving as a major trade center during the 1800s. Between 1820 and 1860, the amount of enslaved blacks rose from 2,655 to 23,710, making up two-thirds of the city’s population.
Montgomery’s crest is adorned with the phrase “Cradle of the Confederacy.” The First White House of the Confederacy still stands today. However, encircling the words is another slogan: the “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.” This is the city that birthed numerous civil rights icons — Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Ralph David Abernathy, Edgar Daniel Nixon and Fred Gray — after all. That these two opposing legacies come from the same place shouldn’t be surprising. One is the result of the other — a cause and effect that can still be felt and seen throughout Montgomery.
Montgomery is reckoning with this paradox — and the memorial and museum speak to that. As fatiguing and overwhelming the memorial is, it provides a needed catharsis. Black people were dehumanized through lynching. From the moment they were hung they became a spectacle, stripped of their life — stripped of their identity. To see them finally be recognized is powerful.
“I never thought I’d see something like this erected in my lifetime,” Dr. Marva Banks, a former professor at Albany State University said. “These lynchings and other atrocities have been hidden and denied for so long. But blacks need to know how they got where they are.”
The 75-year-old Banks came from Albany, Georgia with her daughter to see the memorial. Some visitors traveled from farther distances. Akil King drove seven hours from Tampa Bay, Florida to see the memorial as well as attend the Peace and Justice Summit that took place before the memorial and museum’s opening. Born in Arundel County in Maryland, the now 47-year-old King said he was brought to tears when a brutal lynching was recounted during the summit.
“A woman was distraught over the lynching of her husband so they lynched her too,” King said. “She was pregnant, so once they hung her they cut open her stomach and killed her baby.”
Although lynching no longer occurs in the United States black bodies continue to be dehumanized — especially through the country’s criminal justice system. The 11,000-square-foot Legacy Museum focuses on America’s mass incarceration epidemic, featuring a multimedia exhibit where visitors can speak to inmates on death row as well as an area where short videos on former prisoners can be watched. Anthony Ray Hinton, a man who spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row, is included in both multimedia projects.
Hinton was wrongly convicted of the murders of two restaurant workers in Birmingham, Alabama by an all-white jury in 1985. He was finally released in 2015 after the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously overturned his conviction and the state dropped all charges against him.
“It’s just like it was back in the lynching days. Two white men falsely accused me. It was a white mob that prosecuted me. A white judge that sentenced me. A white jury that convicted me. They created another way of execution,” Hinton said in the video. “It went from the tree to the electric chair, from the electric chair to the gurner…at the end of the journey they still putting you to death.”
America’s criminal justice system is still targeting black people. Lakeith Smith, an 18-year-old from Montgomery, was recently sentenced to 65 years in prison for the murder of his friend, even though he didn’t do it. Three years ago Smith and four friends were involved in a shootout with police in Millbrook — a town that’s 12 minutes from Montgomery — after they broke into someone’s home. Smith’s friend, 16-year-old A’Donte Washington, was fatally shot by an officer.
Under Alabama’s accomplice law which states a person “is legally liable for the behavior of another who commits a criminal offense if that person aids or abets the first person in committing the offense,” Smith was charged with Washington’s death.
“What’s happening to [Lakeith Smith] speaks to this larger story that we’re trying to tell through the [National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum,” Evan Milligan, EJI law fellow, said. “There’s all these disparities — economic, education, health — that manifest into the criminal justice system.”
Montgomery is trying to incite a necessary change in this country. A change in how people talk about race in America. The memorial and museum are harsh reminders that not much has changed in this country — there’s still so much work to do.