History Made Visible: Bryan Stevenson on Lynching and Memorialization
As his nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative endeavors to build the first national lynching memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, Bryan Stevenson has been thinking a lot about what our country celebrates in its public monuments and spaces. If they’re supposed to be a reflection of our collective memory, Stevenson says, there’s a discrepancy between what we remember and our history. So his organization has sought to deepen the historical understanding and address the deficit in what kind of history we memorialize.
We spoke with him on the phone to get his thoughts and learn more about the project in Montgomery, which will include a museum telling the story of race in America from slavery to the modern day. Here’s what he told us.
Can you talk about the genesis of the idea and how long you’ve thought about creating a space like this?
We began work trying to deepen the understanding around slavery and lynching and segregation as it relates to a range of contemporary issues. We first began with a pretty in-depth report on the domestic slave trade and its impact on communities like Montgomery, Alabama, in the Deep South. And it was largely motivated because this is a region that seems very focused on mid-19th century history. There are lots of landmarks, historical sites, monuments, and memorials that celebrate and focus on the era of the Confederacy and there’s virtually no attention given to the institution of slavery.
So we wanted to really address that and the report was the first step in the process that then began to find expression in public markers and monuments. Once we completed the report and we had this detailed history of the way the slave trade worked in Montgomery, we wanted to acknowledge that history.
We set out to put markers in downtown Montgomery that recognized the spaces where the slave trade was most active—the port where steamboats would deposit thousands of enslaved people, the rail station where enslaved people were brought on a regular basis, the slave auction site, the slave warehouses and depots. And we found that process of creating physical markers very energizing and many people in the community came out who were deeply appreciative to have this history made visible.
We then moved to the era of lynching and we’ve been working on lynching research for about five years and have come up with some pretty comprehensive data that seemed to detail more lynchings than had been previously recognized. We put that together in a report in February of 2015 and the response to the report was just so dramatic. We heard from hundreds of family members whose relatives were the victim of lynching, we also heard from family members whose relatives had participated in lynchings. And they were all looking for some way to recover from this history and we started the same process for lynchings that we had initiated for slavery, erecting markers at various lynching sites.
We quickly learned that the number of lynchings was so vast that we were going to have a hard time in a reasonable period of time creating the consciousness about the history that we wanted. That’s when we started thinking about a single site that might memorialize this history of racial terror. And as we began thinking about that, it just grew into something more ambitious that ultimately led us to imagine that we could create a site that was big enough to honor all 4,000 victims of lynching, that would create a process for communities to relate to the memorial and claim markers that they could take back to their space. That was sort of the genesis of the memorial.
The memorial is being built in tandem with a museum, and the museum will tell the story of enslavement through the era of lynching, into segregation and continuing on into the present day. I do think that there are a lot of misconceptions about lynching that need some context, and the museum will provide that context in presenting a narrative about this history of racial inequality that I’m hoping will deepen each visitor’s trip to the lynching memorial in ways that will make it more impactful.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about lynchings that you encounter?
People tend to think of lynchings as only when someone is hanged. They think that a lynching is when someone is hanged from a tree by a rope, when in fact, we consider something a racial terror lynching when it’s an act of violence, a murder committed against someone by a group that is largely able to carry out that act of violence with impunity.
We require two sources of confirmation of the act, and we call them racial terror lynchings because we’re focused on violence directed at African-Americans. There were hangings of white people and other people, but these were typically instances of what I would call frontier justice—mob justice. These events often took place where there were no functioning criminal justice systems, so you had a community responding to some act, focused entirely on that perpetrator.
Racial terror lynchings frequently happened in communities where there was a functioning criminal justice system, where there was a sheriff, there were judges, there was a process for adjudicating allegations of criminal misconduct. These acts were directed not just at the alleged perpetrator of some crime, but they were directed at the entire African-American community.
They were often carried out for allegations not of criminal misconduct but of efforts at challenging white supremacy. We had lots of people lynched in this country because they organized sharecroppers or tenant farmers or they argued for better wages for people working in coal mines. We had people who were lynched because they were just intimate with a white woman and even though there’d been no formal allegation of anything criminal, that suggestion of intimacy was enough to get them murdered.
When people who were accused of some of these violations of social norms weren’t available, their wife or their mother or theirs children would be lynched as proxies because it was really a way of expressing to the entire African-American community, “You must submit to the racial hierarchy. You must submit to white supremacy and we’re going to use this violence, this terrorism to enforce that submission.”
In that respect, it played a unique and distinctive role in American history. It forced the migration, the exodus, of millions of African-Americans in the South to communities in the North and West. It traumatized communities of color. Every black person was the victim of a racial terror lynching because it destabilized and undermined your sense of security and your ability to operate in a community.
So we wanted to highlight that without enslavement, there would be no racial terror lynchings. This was an extension of how this narrative of racial differences, this ideology of white supremacy was going to be enforced after the 13th Amendment. That story, which is so important to understanding what happened after that in the Civil Rights era with segregation, is the story we were interested in focusing on.
The kind of public spectacle features of these lynchings was also something people didn’t typically understand. Oftentimes these acts of violence would be carried out by hundreds, even thousands of people. Sometimes they were carried out literally on the courthouse lawn, in front of the operation criminal justice system. Governors would be complicit, sheriffs would be complicit, judges would be complicit.
And in that respect it creates a question for an entire community: What is your obligation in light of this history about which we’ve all been silent? What should we do? What should we say? Is it appropriate to just ignore it? And those questions are the kinds of questions that are behind our interest in documenting and detailing, and then ultimately memorializing these victims.
Looking at the renderings of the space, I was struck by just how visceral it is. How would you characterize it and what do you want people to experience?
I think we want to sober people. There are cultural spaces around the world that do a very good job of creating a consciousness that this is a memorial to people who have been victimized in a painful and difficult way—the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and other sites of conscience like that that are very powerful. They create an awareness of a particular history. In Auschwitz and other places in Europe, you sense that, you see that. We wanted to replicate that for this site.
So the figures that we suspend are 6-foot modules. We wanted something that approximates the height of a person. They start at eye level so you can read the names and get the details of the lynchings in that particular county. But as you go through the memorial, the floor drops and these figures begin to rise so that at a certain point, you’re standing under these six-foot columns that are suspended above you, in many ways replicating the relationship to observers of lynchings. We wanted that relationship to be in the mind of visitors because it’s a very powerful way of expressing who has power, who doesn’t, who’s safe and who’s not, and appreciating those features of terrorism is important to us.
We then wanted that site to be surrounded by reflection spaces, places to sit, places to think, places to reflect on what this legacy represents. Then, around the memorial structure itself, will be replicas of each of the modules, and the modules represent every county in America where lynchings took place. Here people can have an even more direct relationship with these particular places, these counties, these spaces where this violence was documented.
This is also the space where communities are called to come and claim their module and return it back to their community. So the field becomes a sort of report card on which communities in America have acknowledged and addressed their history by claiming their module, removing it from the site, and erecting it in the community where it took place. Because while we want this memorial to exist and be born here in Montgomery, we want it to live all across the country in every community where lynching took place. We want to connect this legacy of our nation that commits to being governed by the rule of law but abandoned that commitment when African-Americans were being systematically terrorized over this 80-year time period.
What’s the process for communities to engage in that and have you seen interest yet?
Yeah, we’ve been very encouraged by the outreach from particular communities that we’ve been getting. We’ve already been erecting markers at lynching sites so we’ve already been involved in conversations with communities that are interested in talking more honestly about this history. We also started this project where we were going to lynching sites and collecting soil from the sites and putting the soil in jars that have the names of the victims. We have an exhibit in our office now and there will be an exhibit in the museum that dramatizes this history of lynching in that way.
Through those experiences we’ve met lots of people that say, “We absolutely want to get our county to address this.” And I’m encouraged that when the memorial opens later next year, there will be a couple dozen communities that are already actively mobilized to claim their modules and create a relationship for people in their community to this history.
You’ve talked about the challenges of confronting this history in places where its legacy most apparently lives on. Has that manifested itself in Montgomery at all? What has the community feedback been?
We’ve tried to be pretty strategic. I see this as an opportunity for communities to make progress in recovering from these long histories. We don’t talk about this as something that’s designed to punish a community or disrupt a community. But we do believe that there is a need for truth and reconciliation in these spaces where the parents and grandparents of many citizens were complicit in acts of torture and barbarism. Again, the interest isn’t punishment but it is recovery. So that means we have to talk about it.
For me, truth and reconciliation has always been sequential. You can’t get to reconciliation and recovery until you’ve got to truth, and we’ve not done a very good job of telling the truth. If anything, we’ve distorted the history. We’ve painted a picture that is romantic and glorious and wondrous and idyllic when, in fact, for many of these places it was terrifying and horrific and torturous.
So I think we have to own up to that, and I think a lot of people recognize the value of that in our individual lives. We all realize that if we make a mistake, if we do something wrong, that we have to be willing to talk about that if we expect people who we care about to recover, to stay in relationship with us. I think that’s the tenor of the conversation that we’re trying to generate and so far, there has been an openness to that.
We’re still in the very early stages, it’s not been very public yet. That may change, but my hope is that we’ve reached a point in our history where we have the courage to confront the aspects of our past that still hover over us. I do think that there are continuing consequences to this history that we haven’t really addressed. We’ve got a tendency to not value the victimization of people of color the way we ought to, and that tendency has historical antecedent in this legacy of terror and lynching and before that enslavement.
So I think there’s a lot to be gained if we’re willing to confront this history. For me, what I’ve seen happen in South Africa, in Rwanda, in Germany, persuades me that there’s something better on the other side of this process. That we can get to something that is genuinely more like freedom, more like understanding, more like peace, if we have the courage to talk honestly about our history. We haven’t done that and I think what’s resulted is something much more fractious, something much more tenuous, something much less established than we would like when it comes to equality and racial understanding and community.
Is there a model in what you’ve done in Montgomery that other organizations or municipalities can use to erect similar memorials elsewhere?
Well, we think of this really as a national effort. We’re organizing the opportunity for reconciliation in communities all across the country. So we very much see this as a project that creates opportunities in dozens of communities, hundreds of communities across the country.
The very simple act of erecting a marker at a lynching site or even organizing a soil collection and certainly putting a module in your community is really designed not for Montgomery but for the hundreds of counties across the country where these acts of violence took place. So yes, we very much see this as a structure that is designed to facilitate conversation and activity in communities all across America.
“This project has become more urgent because it’s clear that the smog created by this history is not just going to blow away. We’re going to have to clean the air. We’re going to have to have the hard conversations.”Bryan Stevenson
How different does the conversation around the deficit in memorialization in the South feel from when you began this work?
It feels more urgent. I think there has been this hope that many people had that the passage of time would just eradicate all of the vestiges of our history of racial inequality, that this history would just evaporate and we would be at peace. There’d be no race consciousness or bias or discrimination or exclusion. I just think that it’s abundantly clear that 50-plus years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, that those were not magical moments in the history of this country. They did not eliminate this narrative of racial difference. We actually have more segregation in some communities than we had 50 years ago. We have a very racialized environment when it comes to opportunity in education and the criminal justice system.
For me, this project has become more urgent because it’s clear that the smog created by this history is not just going to blow away. We’re going to have to clean the air. We’re going to have to have the hard conversations. We’re going to have to do the difficult work of creating a better environment, creating a healthier environment for the rule of law, for justice, for equality, for fair treatment of every person.
So I guess it’s no longer a debate that we’re not going to make the progress that many of us want to make until we deal with our history of racial inequality and understand how that history continues to haunt us and compromise our ability to move forward.
Can you see this making Montgomery something of a destination for people looking to memorialize, educate, and be educated on Jim Crow and the history of lynching?
I hope so. We’re really proud of this effort. The museum will be unique in that it will be a focused investigation into enslavement and lynching and segregation as a single narrative, and then also bring into that narrative mass incarceration. And the authenticity of the site—our museum is actually on the site of a former slave prison, 100 meters from the slave auction site and the slave deportation site—connected to this era of lynching, connected to the already well-established history of civil rights activism will make Montgomery the kind of community where if you’re interested in learning about the history of America, particularly as it relates to racial equality, this is a place where you can see a lot, you can experience a lot, and you can learn a lot.