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interviews

BRYAN STEVENSON

National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, AL, 2018. Photo: Equal Justice Initiative.

AT THE NATIONAL MEMORIAL for Peace and Justice, which overlooks downtown Montgomery, Alabama, more than eight hundred steel monuments hang, bearing the weight of over four thousand lynchings. A few blocks away, the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration chronicles the history and continued presence of racial violence in America. Opened in April, these two cultural sites were created by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) under the leadership of Bryan Stevenson in order to rewrite, and set right, the narratives regarding the African American experience. EJI was founded in 1989 and has since advocated on behalf of the incarcerated and the wrongly convicted, defending and protecting those who are most vulnerable in our society. As Stevenson’s 2014 book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, adeptly recounts, each case he and EJI have taken on has revealed how pervasive inequality in our legal system serves only to amplify historical injustice. As Alabama celebrates its bicentennial, both the memorial and the museum proffer a future that could emerge if we choose to see our past more clearly.

Jane McFadden

View of the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, Montgomery, AL, 2018. Photos: Equal Justice Initiative.

I AM A PRODUCT OF Brown v. Board of Education. Lawyers came into our community in Delaware when I was a child and opened up the public schools to black students. That intervention made it possible for me to go to high school, college, and law school. It also gave me the idea that laws are the most powerful tools for protecting people who are the target of bias and discrimination.

I have been a lawyer for more than thirty years, and I still believe in the power of our courts and the rule of law. But eventually I recognized that the law would always be limited without a deeper commitment to eliminating racial prejudice.We have enormous disparities in the criminal-justice system that everyone accepts. In 1987, when the United States Supreme Court was presented with dramatic evidence of racial bias in the administration of the death penalty, it characterized these disparities as “inevitable.” This decision, McCleskey v. Kemp, was notably unlike 1954’s Brown, when the Court—compelled by the immorality of racial bias and discrimination—declared racial segregation in education unconstitutional. Somehow, the moral compulsion that required them to say “no more” wasn’t there in the 1980s, and the inevitability doctrine has continued ever since.

John T. Biggers, Women and Children, 1952, lithograph on paper, 13 1/4 × 17".

I became persuaded that we were going to have to change the environment outside the courts if we were going to make real progress inside them. EJIbegan researching the history of slavery, lynching, and segregation. It became clear to me that we needed to find ways to put this information in front of people, so art and culture became more of a focus. We started by placing historical markers around Montgomery to memorialize the domestic slave trade and working with communities to erect historical markers at lynching sites around the country. I was struck by how the markers disrupted a landscape that had been silent for decades.

“Ultimately, the memorial will live everywhere the legacy of lynching exists.”

We think changing the visual landscape of America is critical, because the lynchings of African Americans weren’t acts of violence directed at individuals: They were acts designed to terrorize African Americans into submission. Often, after a lynching, the mangled, beaten body of that man, woman, or child would be dragged through a black community. Sometimes the bodies would remain hanging for several days. The exodus of six million black people from the American South to the urban north and west in the twentieth century is not, to my mind, about immigrants looking for new economic opportunities: It’s about refugees and exiles who were traumatized, who were forced into unfamiliar lands.

Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, Nkyinkim Installation, 2018, resin, fiberglass, cement, rebar. Installation view, National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, AL. Photo: Equal Justice Initiative.

Sculpturally, we wanted to represent this era with an emphasis on place, and that’s why each of the six-foot-tall monuments at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice represents a county where lynching occurred. We wanted to name not only the individuals who were victims of this violence, but also the sites where these acts of terror took place, because what has been particularly burdensome about this history is the silence around it, a silence that contributes to the legacy of pain. Americans believe in memorials; we just seem not to believe in memorials that reflect our failings. I think we have thereby created empty spaces that leave us vulnerable to tolerating more bigotry. The monuments are intended to disrupt those empty spaces.

Ultimately, the memorial will live everywhere this legacy exists. We have created replicas of each county’s monument and will be engaging with those communities to claim theirs and to place them at local sites where lynchings occurred. My vision is that this memorial will exist throughout the country, and will tell the larger story of what happened when Americans allowed terrorism and racism to traumatize our nation, to create this burden that we have yet to free ourselves from.

Sanford Biggers, BAM (For Michael), 2015, bronze. Installation view, the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, Montgomery, AL, 2018. Photo: Equal Justice Initiative.

Other sculptures at the National Memorial site express how slavery evolved. It was not just involuntary servitude but an ideology of racial difference that survived the formal end of slavery, and it manifested in decades of racial terrorism and segregation. A work by sculptor Dana King, Guided by Justice [2018], presents women marching during the Montgomery bus boycott; a sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas, Raise Up [2018], serves as a statement about our continuing challenges with police violence and presumptions of African American dangerousness and guilt. These connect back to Ghanaian sculptor Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s Nkyinkyim Installation[2018], the first work visitors encounter at the site, which depicts enslaved people searching for humanity in this foreign land.

View of the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, Montgomery, AL, 2018. Photos: Equal Justice Initiative.

The Legacy Museum is a narrative museum. Our priority was to create an experience where, at the end of it, a visitor will be moved to say, “Never again should we tolerate this kind of bigotry and bias.” We commissioned an installation by artist-writer Molly Crabapple and a narrative short film produced by HBO. We engaged musicians such as Brandie Sutton and Chrystal Rucker and R&B artist Donnie to interpret the spirituals and laments of enslaved people and to help deepen the relationships to music that sustained people during this era. We use the rich archives from the civil-rights era, and present audio narratives collected from people who had personal experiences of terror lynchings. We have also included works by visual artists John T. Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Sanford Biggers, Glenn Ligon, and others. Later this summer, we will open a center across the street from the National Memorial that will serve as a gathering place for people to talk about ways of presenting this history through art and culture, and for critical thinking around issues of race, class, and gender inequality.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, AL, 2018. Photo: Equal Justice Initiative.

In America we romanticize the architects and defenders of slavery. We have an iconography that is complicit in avoiding the pain and anguish of the legacy of racial inequality. People don’t want to talk about race. We can decrease the amount of time in which we can call that era over, but only if we commit to truth telling. Countries like Germany and Rwanda have made progress by confronting the ugliness of their histories, and we have a lot to learn from that. I think if we find the courage to tell the truth about our history, about the brutality of slavery, about the horrors of lynching, about the consequences of segregation and the challenges created by ongoing manifestations of racial bias, we can create a different environment. I really do believe in truth and reconciliation. I just think they’re sequential. You have to tell the truth first.