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Lynching Memorial In Alabama Will Reflect On U.S. History Of Racial Terror


Montgomery, Ala., has been a draw for history buffs for a long time. It's a city known for both being the cradle of the Confederacy and the birthplace of the civil rights movement. Now there's a new museum and memorial opening there tomorrow focusing on the nation's history of racial terror. NPR's Debbie Elliott takes us there.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice stands high on a hillside overlooking downtown Montgomery. In the distance, the train depot and winding Alabama River, a key link for the domestic slave trade. And that's where the experience begins, as visitors encounter a life-size sculpture in bronze of six people in chains, including a mother with a baby in her arms.

BRYAN STEVENSON: It's people in distress.

ELLIOTT: Bryan Stevenson is director of the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit legal advocacy group that created the memorial.

STEVENSON: I don't think we've actually done a very good job of acknowledging the pain and agony, the suffering, the humiliation, the complete denial of humanity that slavery created.

ELLIOTT: Stevenson guides me through this somber space as construction and landscape crews work to get ready to open to the public tomorrow. It's a journey from slavery to the period after the Civil War. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4,000 lynchings that happened between 1877 and 1950.

STEVENSON: We're standing in front of a monument from Carroll County, Miss., where nearly two dozen people were lynched.

ELLIOTT: The monument is a 6-foot-tall steel block and there are 800 just like it suspended from above and arranged in a square surrounding a grassy courtyard. There's a monument for each county where racial killings occurred. They resemble elongated gravestones etched with the names of victims, people like Arthur St. Clair, a black minister lynched in Florida for performing an interracial wedding.

As you walk through the memorial, the orientation of the hanging monuments changes from eye level to overhead, the way lynching victims were hung, often in public spaces.

STEVENSON: They lifted these bodies up as a statement to the entire African-American community. They wanted to lift up this violence, this terror, this tragedy for others to see.

ELLIOTT: Stevenson wants people to confront the brutality and be able to talk openly about it.

STEVENSON: I think for many people of color, they've had to endure the pain of this era, this history, in silence. It wasn't safe to talk about all of that anguish.

ELLIOTT: The memorial seeks to change that, an ambitious and most uncomfortable endeavor, says local historian Richard Bailey.

RICHARD BAILEY: America in general is not prepared for what they are going to see here.

ELLIOTT: There are dozens of markers and monuments to the Confederacy in Montgomery. But it was not until the 1990s that the fuller picture of the state's heritage was recognized. Alabama now markets its civil rights trail, including the site in Montgomery where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. But state tourism director Lee Sentell says no attraction has taken the point of view visitors will encounter at The National Peace and Justice Memorial.

LEE SENTELL: Most museums are somewhat objective and benign. This one is not. This is aggressive, political.

ELLIOTT: Bryan Stevenson acknowledges the experience will be painful but says that happens at the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the Apartheid Museum in South Africa, for instance. His organization is also opening a Legacy Museum at the site of a former slave warehouse in Montgomery. It draws a direct line from slavery to lynching to issues the country faces today, including mass incarceration. Stevenson says that connection is key.

STEVENSON: There's a lot of conflict. There's a lot of tension. We're dealing with police violence. We're dealing with these huge disparities in our criminal justice system. You know, if everything was wonderful, you could ask the question, well, why would you talk about that difficult past? But everything is not wonderful.

ELLIOTT: Both projects are being welcomed by the Downtown Business Association. President Clay McInnis says it's time for a reckoning.

CLAY MCINNIS: I'm a millennial. I think our generation is ready for real and honest conversation. And I think this project is in a way putting our city on therapy and our country on therapy.

ELLIOTT: The memorial has also served as a catalyst in the surrounding neighborhood where historic homes had been deteriorating for years.

JUSTIN HAMPTON: You can actually see the memorial through the trees here.

ELLIOTT: Justin Hampton is African-American and runs a community development organization. He and his wife are renovating a circa 1900 Victorian here.

HAMPTON: It's told that slaves were actually walked up this street. And, I mean, that house there was the plantation house at the end of the block there.

ELLIOTT: Hampton says his family living here represents a turning point.

HAMPTON: It's just a good feeling to know that you're a part of change.

ELLIOTT: The National Peace and Justice Memorial includes a section where counties can claim a replica of their lynching monument to take home and start similar conversations throughout the country. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Montgomery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South and occasionally guest-hosting NPR news programs. She covers the latest news and politics and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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