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The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, honors victims of lynching. It provides a moving tribute and a history lesson, revealing the widespread political violence used to maintain white supremacy. The memorial encourages healing, acknowledging the victims' humanity and the continuing legacy of racial terror. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(lively jazz music) - [Steven] We're in Montgomery, Alabama at the Equal Justice Initiative's National Memorial for Peace and Justice. We've just walked through and I feel emotionally overwhelmed. - [Hilary] I've been here over 20 times and every time I'm teary and emotional, but in a good way, because in those emotions I'm able to feel and do what the memorials intend, to have an inner peace, but also way to go forward and heal on this unspoken history in a way that honors the people who were the victims of lynching. - [Steven] When I grew up, lynching was almost never spoken about, and it is America's great shame. - I heard some of it growing up in an African-American family. They used lynching as a way to educate us as children of what not to do. When it was taught in schools in Massachusetts, that's where I grew up in the Boston area, it was individual actors. It wasn't seen as widespread. And this Memorial shows it was political. It was violence that was widespread in almost every state of the United States except for a handful. And that becomes very clear as you walk through this memorial. - [Steven] Walking through, starting at the top of the hill and winding down through a descending ramp so that these large corten steel memorials begin to hang over your head one after another, after another multiplying. - [Hilary] You're going through the cycle of a lynching from the person while they were still alive and upright and at eye level to when they are strong up and over your head, and all you see at the base is the county. And at the end, when they're laid out in coffin-like style, giving them the dignity in a burial that they never have, and it gets overwhelming when you see nothing but bottoms of the pieces and you no longer can see the names. - [Steven] And that idea that this memorial is offering a kind of solace, offering a kind of funerary honor that these people had never been afforded is so moving and feels to me that it has come too late, but I'm grateful that it has come at all. - [Hilary] They were not this unknown men, women, and children. They were fathers, they were mothers and the crimes that they were accused of, a man, a minister marrying someone, is the reason why he was killed. Military veteran returning back from the Spanish American War killed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. A husband, his family was killed because he voted. People came back to the house, killed his mother, his wife, and two children. It becomes clear that they were people. They were community members and in death, they still deserve honor. - [Steven] Lynching was a tool of repression. It was a tool to subjugate to maintain the surveillance terrorizing slave state that had existed before the war. - [Hilary] It's the ultimate form of what Koritha Mitchell calls know-your-place-aggression. If you go outside your place for organizing a union, you could be killed. If you were to vote, you could be killed. If you were reprimanding children to get them to stop throwing rocks at you, you were lynched. It was the way to keep people submissive, but what I found telling is when you have more than one person killed on a day around election times for voting, around labor organizing, and you have not one person, but five people, 10 people, 20 people. - [Steven] Or entire communities that are attacked and burned. - [Hilary] Like Elaine, Arkansas and the Tulsa Massacre. This is a way to protect a system of white supremacy with political violence, with political intent. - [Steven] So the challenge was how do you take that history of terror and translate that through architecture, through memorial sculpture into something that is meaningful in the 21st Century. - [Hilary] And this is the brilliance of this memorial. You are just settled with the name and the date. And even when not known, unknown as a name, you get a history lesson in a way that you can then have deeper conversations that you would not have before. And that's why this memorial is striking and why it's bringing both peace for a community to heal, but also justice for the victims of this heinous crime. Ida B Wells says that this was the national crime, and we need to acknowledge it as a nation. - [Steven] And when I was walking through looking at the justifications of why people were lynched, especially at those that were murdered because they had voted, it's hard not to look at contemporary politics and the efforts to suppress voting now, and this is not history in a sense. This is part of a continuing legacy. - [Hilary] And that's one of the things, a continuing legacy of resistance, a refusal to accept one's place, and to understand that the ballot matters the most and why it's dangerous to be educated and to be politically savvy. And those are why we're having these debates now over voting rights, but also what gets taught in the classroom because lynching was not taught in the classroom. And when you see it as not a one off thing, but a long legacy and history, it becomes different in the present. - [Steven] Walking up to one of these rectangular forms, they function as abstract human bodies, but also as grave markers and transform that figure into a remembrance. - [Hilary] The families behind those names never forgot. And one of the most striking walls says, "We will remember." Families remembered, communities remembered. That refusal, that act is one of the reasons why we can have this memorial because it went from safe spaces within the Black community to now national conversation. - [Steven] The research and outreach to those families to gather those memories and bring them together here. - [Hilary] This was an unknowable. Families had this, but also newspapers documented these. Government reports and politicians used this and openly discussed this. So there's an acknowledgement of the families who never forgot and never got that healing that they too could heal, not just the nation and that what they did in his counter-act of commemoration in scrapbooks and family diaries was valid. And that concern is now shaping the national conversations of what do we do now. (lively jazz music)