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Remembering the Past/Imagining the Future: Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama

There’s a clear recognition here that there can be no racial reconciliation without a serious reckoning with the truth, and that the truth of history can never be unmade. Facing history can be agonizing, painful, sometimes horrifying—the Memorial is an unambiguous statement of that fact.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice ,Equal Justice Initiative

On April 26 and 27 we joined thousands of people from around the country and around the world at the Peace and Justice Opening in Montgomery, Alabama. Days were filled with formal and informal gatherings, reunions and new connections, the Peace and Justice Summit featuring many powerful thinkers including Elizabeth Alexander, Jelani Cobb, Ava Duverany, and Michelle Alexander, and on the last night, the Concert for Peace and Justice. The focus of the gathering was the unveiling of two breathtaking new sites: the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the Legacy Museum, both projects of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).

Under the leadership of Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights lawyer who has for decades championed the most vulnerable people caught in the criminal justice system (and who, parenthetically, should win a Nobel Peace Prize), EJI’s mission has been to advance an honest reckoning with the legacy of slavery, lynching, and segregation, and with building a process of truth telling and racial reconciliation. These sites are stunning illustrations of that larger project.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice records and memorializes the over 4,000 people murdered in the terror campaigns that followed the abolition of slavery and the defeat of Black Reconstruction in the South. The Memorial sits on a grassy hill overlooking the state capitol which was also the heart and headquarters of the Confederate traitors who in 1860 were willing to blow up the entire country in defense of a single freedom: their assumed right to own other human beings. It is unlike any other memorial in the world.

Up a gently rising path you encounter several human figures, naked and in chains, each with a different posture and facial expression: fear, fury, resignation, pain, defiance. Continue up the path and enter the memorial square, face to face with row after row of tall metal rectangles, weathered and standing close together like grave stones. Each rectangle has etched on its face the name of a county where a documented lynching took place, followed by the names of the victims of the terror—one after another—and the date of each specific atrocity. Say their names.

The Memorial does the hard work of documenting and representing thousands of lynchings over many decades—it names the victims, person by person—and illustrates that the terror was systematic and pervasive. The Memorial tells the truth—hard, unblinking, trembling and real. By now you are engulfed in rectangles, disoriented and surrounded, and soon the names twist and surge toward you. The massive scale of the murders becomes palpable—the rectangles stretch into the far distance—and yet each name is distinct, each the one of one.

Continue walking, and the metal monuments seem to rise in front of you, higher and higher, as the floor gradually descends. Now they are swinging above, like bodies from a tree branch. The effect is devastating.

We seek out the Lowndes County, Alabama monument, looking for the name of Jim Press Meriweather and there he is, killed on 08-22-1935 for the “crime” of attempting to organize a Sharecropper’s Union. The Legacy Museum has been collecting earth from each lynching site, and months earlier my family had made a pilgrimage to the place of Meriweather’s murder in order to gather soil to add to this sacred display. We pause in silence before seeking out four counties from our home state of Illinois—one is St. Claire County where at least 29 souls were slaughtered in a frenzied white race riot in July, 1917.

There’s a clear recognition here that there can be no racial reconciliation without a serious reckoning with the truth, and that the truth of history can never be unmade. Facing history can be agonizing, painful, sometimes horrifying—the Memorial is an unambiguous statement of that fact. But the cost of not remembering is excruciating as well, and willful ignorance and collective silence assure that the racial wounds will never heal, the horror will continue in evolving forms. The tragedy, shame, and pain of this country—kidnapping, slavery, rape, murder, genocide, torture, terrorism, predation, exploitation and oppression, degradation and humiliation—are both foundational and linked. Slavery begets lynching begets Jim Crow and segregation and voter suppression and mass incarceration. Lynching’s fingerprints are all over the killings of Trayvon Martin, Troy Davis, Mike Brown, Laquan McDonald, Rekia Boyd and thousands of other Black people whose lives were taken at the hands of police and America’s legal lynching apparatus, capital punishment, and white supremacist violence.

Lynching was ritual, and the ceremony required witnesses and a code of silence to protect the guilty as well as to commune with them. In this way the entire community teamed up and shared the experience. And this too is heritage: in the face of police violence and mass incarceration, to stay quiet is to collaborate.

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Image credit: Bill Ayers

In spite of everything and against expectation, a sense of hopefulness pervades the Memorial and the Museum, a hope that a new world might be created from the wreckage of this inheritance, a more loving and just and peaceful world. But only if we pay full attention to the crimes of history. The dialectic of horror and light, anger and love, is conspicuous in every corner. Once you see it, you can’t un-see it, true, but once you see it, you might be inspired to remove the stain, to get busy in a movement of repair—you can choose to become resident of a country that does not yet exist but is clearly in-the-making. And don’t call us the “resistance;” we’re the creators, the inventors, the visionaries; Trump is the resistance. Activists must always ask, Where is the love? And in this space, the love is peeking from behind every stone.

The experience of the Memorial is staggering, awe-inspiring, illuminating, breathtaking—beyond moving, it feels life altering. Plan a visit, and take the children.

William Ayers, Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago (retired), member of the executive committee of the Faculty Senate and founder of both the Small Schools Workshop and the Center for Youth and Society, taught courses in interpretive and qualitative research, oral history, creative non-fiction, urban school change, and teaching and the modern predicament. Ayers has written extensively about social justice, democracy and education, the cultural contexts of schooling, and teaching as an essentially intellectual, ethical, and political enterprise. To see a list books Ayers has published and edited, visit his website. He lives in Hyde Park, Chicago with Bernardine Dohrn, partner, comrade, friend, co-parent and grand-parent, inspiration, co-author, lover, and soul-mate for close to half a century.