I didn’t think a memorial about the horror of lynching could be beautiful. But that’s just what the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is.
Though I’m not sure it was done purposefully, it also gave off the sweet smell of tobacco, an aroma men who grew up in the South like I did can’t forget. The memorial panels that recount the more than 4,400 documented lynchings even evoke the color of tobacco going through its curing phase. It reminded me of the days I spent when I was a teenager picking leaves from the plant in mile-long rows for hours on end in a South Carolina heat that often hit triple digits.
My mother and father and aunts and uncles picked tobacco and cotton and other crops too—not as one in a series of summer jobs like me and my brothers and sisters did, but to fend off starvation and because just about every other option had been closed off to them. They were forced to be in fields my grandfather worked as a sharecropper instead of sitting in a desk at school until some of them headed north as part of a Great Migration that saw several million black people flee the South in the early and mid-20th century. It was the persistence of lynchings turned black people into refugees in their own country.
Before that, generations of my family were enslaved—we were able to track it on my mother’s side but not my father’s, who was an only child whose mother died during childbirth—in a system unlike any other in world history, one that began as a kind of indentured servitude but morphed into one based on the darkness of one’s skin. Those fields, those smells, they helped shape me, helped shape all of us.
That’s what I was thinking as I toured the memorial, and later the Legacy Museum, in downtown Montgomery, both of them the creation of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. The smell made me flash back. The sight of documented lynchings in areas near where I grew up initially made me angry, even though I began studying the issue years ago. Samuel Gaillard and George McFadden and Samuel Turner were lynched in Williamsburg, the county in South Carolina where my mother at the age of 13 was forced to marry a man two decades her senior. Bruce Tisdale was lynched in Georgetown, where I got married, where my wife’s family still lives.
“I think we should feel shattered and haunted by this history,” Stevenson said at a press conference after the tour.
I know I do.
There were other stories throughout the region, including one about a woman named Elizabeth Lawrence being lynched in 1933 Birmingham after reprimanding white children who had thrown rocks at her. Laura Wood was lynched in 1930 North Carolina after being accused of stealing a ham. Anthony Crawford was lynched in South Carolina two years before my father was born for “rejecting a white merchant’s bid for cottonseed.”
Thomas Miles allegedly wrote a note to a white woman in Shreveport, Louisiana. General Lee knocked on a white woman’s front door. A black construction worker committed the racial sin of demanding a white coworker return his shovel. Jesse Thornton didn’t address a white police officer with the title “mister.” Ernest McGowan had the audacity to report a group of white men who had attacked him. Robert Mallard dared to vote in 1948 Georgia. Sometimes the mobs attacked entire communities of black people because they had grown successful. Sometimes they paraded a bullet-riddled corpse in front of black homes as a warning.
Most such killings happened in the South, but hundreds were documented in the North. They were the worst, most effective kind of terror, often done in broad daylight and in the presence of sometimes thousands of white people—men, women, children, who looked on as Mary Turner and others were burned alive. Turner’s eight-month-old fetus was cut from her belly and stomped on as her lifeless body was hanging upside down. In Texas, two black men were burned to death and the female members of their family were gang-raped. The murders were arbitrary and backed by the force of law and institutions at all levels of government. Law enforcement officials often participated or looked the other way. If you were black, your guilt depended solely upon the discretion of white people, no matter your actual innocence. A black person’s greatest sin, aside from being a black man accused of having a relationship with a white woman, was daring to point out crimes for which whites were complicit.
This is the history of America too few know or want to acknowledge. It is connected to Jim Crow laws that accompanied it and a mass incarceration largely built upon black bodies that would follow it. Lynchings were a direct outgrowth of a slavery too many continue wanting to pretend didn’t shape this country in horrific ways. It’s why the first exhibit visitors will see in the memorial is a gut-wrenching sculpture of enslaved Africans—including of an anguished mother holding a child while reaching for a husband—each of them wearing chains and shackles and little else. It’s ugly, hard to look at, the despair on their faces inescapable, including a woman on her knees. It’s the most graphic portion of the memorial, which is followed by a serene pathway and greenery that lead to the panels engraved with names such as Charles Shipman, lynched in 1918 in Bend County, Texas, for “arguing with the white owner of the plantation where he lived and worked.”
And yet a memorial that documents all of that ugliness finds a way to be beautiful. I can’t fully explain why. Maybe it’s the wall in the middle of the memorial with its constant, gentle waterfall that guided me to a sober reflection, not an embittered reaction. It didn’t make me forget what I had seen, what I had just learned. But that wall, the soothing sound of the water, helped calm my soul. It made it easier for me to digest the sculpture of a series of young black men with their arms raised high, knowing they are perceived guilty until proven innocent, and sometimes not even then.
Maybe that’s the genius of the museum’s design. It neither shies away from nor revels in the horrors it asks you to contemplate. It makes clear that black people were deemed by the Supreme Court as something less than human, that slave traders “stored” black people among hogs, that lynchers thought black life was worth less than a ham or a shovel or an un-uttered “mister.” It grabs you by the throat but makes sure not to choke you. It confronts without condemning. It provides hope through the sculptures, and footprints, of brave women in Montgomery who were the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. They overcame and so can we.
A quote from Maya Angelou on the side of the museum, a few blocks away and connected to EJI’s main building, sums it up best: “History, despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
As Stevenson said, the goal of the memorial is to begin a truth and reconciliation process—but that truth comes before reconciliation.
Before I walked through the memorial, I wondered if that was possible, especially during an age in which white supremacists feel emboldened. I wondered if I would walk in and anger would accompany me back out into the world without realizing the anger I felt was an unacknowledged anger I had unwittingly brought with me. I had every—have every right—to that anger. We all should be angry that that level of evil existed, was widespread and went unchallenged for far too long.
“I think it’s important that we acknowledge when we don’t do what we are supposed to do,” Stevenson said about the need to grapple with that past. That past has bled into our present in the form of mass incarceration, police brutality, a rebirth of open bigotry, and protest marches against white supremacists that have ended in death and heartache.
“We want everyone to understand this history,” he said. “There is a better America still waiting. There is a more just America that’s still waiting.”
How long it waits is up to us.
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