Bear Witness to the Past to Improve the Future

A long-overdue memorial and museum dedicated to the history and lives lost to slavery has opened in Montgomery, Alabama.

The project is the brainchild of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), and features hanging columns naming U.S. counties in which black Americans were lynched.

The visual impact of the memorial is to make it appear from the outside as though the columns are supporting the overarching structure, when in reality, they are hanging from it.

This is a hauntingly beautiful and stunningly accurate representation of the history of black Americans, as well as the societal devaluing of black contributions to American history.

More than anyone, save perhaps the indigenous Native Americans, African slaves who became black Americans gave their lives in the forging of this country. Our nation is literally and figuratively built on their blood, sweat, and tears.

To try and pave over that history, as our country has done for so long, prevents the development of understanding, and therefore empathy, on the part of white Americans, which resulted in long-simmering, now-boiling racial tensions in the country.

And worse, it deprives the black Americans living today of the recognition, respect, and honor that they and their ancestors deserve for their compulsory sacrifices and contributions to this nation.

Here’s Stevenson speaking on DemocracyNow! about his inspiration for the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice:

“People often say to me, “Why do you want to dig up the past? Why do you want to start talking about the past?” We are preoccupied with the past in the American South. Last Monday was Confederate Memorial Day. It’s a state holiday. We have a state holiday of Jefferson Davis’s birthday. We don’t have Martin Luther King Day in Alabama. We have Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day. And this preoccupation with mid-19th century history is one of the characteristics that oppresses and burdens people of color. We talk about the mid-19th century, but we never talk about slavery. So, for me, talking about slavery, talking about lynching, talking about segregation, talking about our history of racial inequality is critical to creating a consciousness that will allow us to move forward toward a just—toward justice and equality. And I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of that in our country.”

To hear the extended interview, click here; to learn more about The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, click here.

To donate to EJI, click here.


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