A year has passed since my trip to Alabama. Thinking back on my mini Civil Rights Tour, I keep thinking about The National Memorial of Peace and Justice and being a little closer to such personal history.
It was humid. The type of humidity only experienced in the Deep South, where the sun shines boldly and unrelenting, as if sensing the rains and clouds would soon take over. But even with the promise of heat, I was looking forward to walking through the memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Filled with over 800 hanging corten steel monuments, each one represents a different county in the United States where racial terror took place in the form of lynching, listing the victims and the date they were killed between 1877-1950.
It’s a sobering memorial. Walking through was a mix of emotions – deep sadness for the atrocities committed against thousands (and untold numbers of the unknown victims), rage and anger for those who gleefully committed these crimes against men, women, and children…and pain, knowing the terror went on for so long and the repercussions we’re still dealing with as a people and country today.
My Dad hails from small town Louisiana and when I was there, I knew I had to search to see if the Parish he and my family was from had its own monument.
Listed were four names of men who were lynched, dating from 1898-1917.
I couldn’t help but wonder how it was for my family from those generations. Did one or more of my great grandparents know them or did they hear of the lynching? Did they mourn with the family members? Did they live in fear the weeks after each one, thinking how easily it could have been one of them instead of Charles, Edward, Thomas, or Marcel?
“To overcome racial inequality, we must confront our history.”
This slogan comes from the organization behind the Memorial, Equal Justice Initiative. Started by Bryan Stevenson, EJI does incredible and life altering work, including working with people who are unjustly and unfairly treated by our justice system and challenges the death penalty.
At the Memorial you will find a plaque that reads: “At this memorial, we remember the thousands killed, the generations of black people terrorized, and the legacy of suffering and injustice that haunts us still. We also remember the countless victims whose deaths were not recorded in the news archives and cannot be documented, who are recognized solely in the mournful memories of those who loved them. We believe that telling the truth about the age of racial terror and reflecting together on this period and its legacy can lead to a more thoughtful and informed commitment to justice today. We hope this memorial will inspire individuals, communities, and this nation to claim our difficult history and commit to a just and peaceful future.”
I love that statement because it is a great reminder of why we need them.
Sometimes it feels like I (and I know many others) spend so much time doing the work of justice and peace that we don’t take the time to lament. Visiting the Memorial helped me do just that. Lament the evil that reigned in this country and terrorized my people.
The Memorial also gave space to grieve. Grief for the loss of life from the day the first enslaved Black person was brought to this country to the men and women lost in a criminal justice system that, as Stevenson wrote in Just Mercy, works for the rich and guilty, not the poor and innocent.
With so many names to read, The Memorial also provided space to remember so many lives lost. Generations later, their names are remembered because of a space like this.
We can honor those lost by committing to living a life pursuing justice. Dr. Maya Angelou said: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
May we live with courage.