"History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read," wrote James Baldwin in 1966, recalling a march through Montgomery, Alabama. "And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do… It is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations."
The presence of history is the great theme of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opened in late April in Montgomery by the legal-services nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative. Together with EJI's new Legacy Museum across town, the memorial weaves a thread from antebellum slavery through the racial terrorism of lynching, and from there to Jim Crow laws and ultimately our current era of mass incarceration. In facing the violence of an earlier era, we come to know ourselves.
The memorial focuses on lynching, the least explored link in that chain. It sits atop a grassy knoll on the outskirts of downtown. From afar, the memorial is understated, a temple on a hill. Inside, pillars of rusted steel hang from the ceiling, each representing a county where any of the nation's more than 4,400 lynchings took place from 1877 to 1950. Approaching the pillars, the visitor passes a concise description of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its evolution into more current forms of white supremacy. Near the entrance, a brutal sculpture shows stripped Africans chained together howling in agony and despair. Theirs is the blood soaking the ground beneath the visitor's feet.
The pillars are stately by comparison. Initially, they stand at eye level, designating a single county above the names of victims and the dates of their violent ends. Isaiah Cauniel, 4.10.1883. Wade Patterson, 1.15.1911. Belford McCray, Betsie McCray, Ida McCray: 8.01.1901. The monoliths have oxidized into a red-brown rust, each taking on a unique pattern: interlocking circles, ragged zig-zags, and drip marks. Anyone who has spent time in the South will recognize county names before long: The parish where your friends got married; the county where your family watched the solar eclipse; the city where you sleep every night – all scarred by racial terrorism.
Beyond the first corner of the memorial's square layout, the floor slopes. The descent recalls the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C; the monoliths gesture to the overgrown coffins of Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. But here, the pillars lift off the ground, and soon their feet hang like strange fruit at eye level. From there, they rise completely overhead, and take on a double resonance. The names on the pillars leap above the visitor's ability to read them, floating skyward like the souls of the deceased. But the pillars' metal bulk still hangs solidly overhead, weighing on the viewer below.
The effect is devastating. To see tokens of savagery amassed like this is to understand lynching not as discrete instances of racist flare-ups, but as a tool of terror meant to reinforce the social hierarchy keeping white Americans above and apart from their Black fellows – an implied threat, a force that buzzed in the Southern air waiting to be instantiated.
The South can be too easily cordoned off as the standalone site of American racism, sometimes to the frustration of Southerners who recognize that narrative as a form of distancing, removing the rest of the country from culpability. But the prevalence of lynching across the South – where more than 85 percent of the country's Black population lived at emancipation – is undeniable. This is a Southern phenomenon. With so many Black people in the region, and so much potential for Black advancement, the twisted social hierarchy could only be maintained with enormous violence.
Black people were lynched for the slightest transgressions, some of which are detailed on placards in the memorial. The perceived threat of Black men coupling with white women is a familiar one, and here a common theme. Interracial love, lust, and parenting are dangers to a system of racial supremacy predicated on segregation and the belief in inherent racial difference. But the suggestion of interracial sex needed be barely perceptible to bring down the white community's wrath: General Lee, a Black man, was lynched in 1904 in Reevesville, South Carolina for merely knocking on a white woman's door. Less familiar are the political lynchings. A white mob slew Ed Bracy, G. Smith Watkins, and Jim Press Meriweather in 1935 for organizing a sharecroppers union in Lowndes County, Alabama. In 1948, Isaiah Nixon was lynched in Montgomery County, Georgia, for daring to cast a vote.
Not every story can be recalled. Many of the pillars in the memorial list "unknown" victims – those who, even in their belated remembrance, are buried by history. Some pillars cite over a dozen lost names killed on the same day. And another tragedy whispers through the memorial: a great number of the counties where Black Americans were killed are named in Native tongues, echoes of earlier populations wiped out by the forebears of those who would later brandish the noose.
Today, deadly force has migrated into the legal system, where it still serves white supremacy, especially in the South. More than 80 percent of legal executions in this country have occurred in states formerly of the Confederacy, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. Attorney Bryan Stevenson founded EJI in 1989 to provide legal services for prisoners on death row, at a time when the condemned were routinely unrepresented as their execution dates approached. The memorial and museum grew from the Initiative's criminal justice work – history unspooled, Baldwinesque, from the present.
What to make of all this? Throughout the two-day ceremony celebrating the opening of the memorial and its twinned museum, speakers reiterated that the act of remembering is an act of healing. Poet Elizabeth Alexander hoped that the memorial might "redeem America." Amid the forest of hanging totems, that task can feel near impossible.
But outside the cloistered walkway, an identical copy of each county's pillar lies prone in the elements, rusting handsomely among its peers. The rows of boxes look like massed caskets. But they are made to travel: the Equal Justice Initiative has invited each county to come claim its pillar as a readymade monument. That could enable counties to begin their own atonement processes, dispersing the memorial across the South, where it belongs.
"The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment," Stevenson wrote in his 2014 memoir, "the more I believe it's necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and – perhaps – we all need some measure of unmerited grace." This memorial – contemplative, steely-eyed, and gorgeous to behold – is an invitation to all three.