Memorial for Peace and Justice

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, September 10th. So glad you’ve joined us today for The World and Everything in It. 

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next, Montgomery, Alabama’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

When the structure opened last year, it was the first memorial to the painful history of lynching in this country.

EICHER: Correspondent Kim Henderson covered that opening with a story that appeared in WORLD magazine. She recently returned to Montgomery to see how the memorial is faring after a year of crowds and media attention. Recording equipment is not permitted inside the memorial, so she spoke with a few visitors outside.

AUDIO: [Sound of landscapers working]

KIM HENDERSON, REPORTER: Outside the Memorial for Peace and Justice, a crew is weeding flower beds. They’re also making room for a bunch of sun-loving plants called pentas. That’s good, because there’s plenty of sun and heat to go around in Montgomery. 

NEWSCASTER: Today in Montgomery was the grand opening of a memorial honoring African Americans who were lynched…

Since the memorial opened in April 2018, nothing has garnered more foot traffic than the massive open-air pavilion at the center of the downtown property. There, history—the full weight of it—hangs as heavy as the humidity. 

Harvard Law School graduate and best-selling author Bryan Stevenson provided the momentum for the lynching memorial through the Equal Justice Initiative.  That’s a nonprofit legal group he founded in 19-89. He spoke with Oprah Winfrey in 2018…

STEVENSON: We wanted people to have a sense of just the scale of what this violence, of what this terrorism was.

Through a series of descending pathways, visitors encounter some 800 coffin-like monuments. Each represents a different county where lynchings took place all across the country. They’re fashioned from corten steel, a brown-toned material that seems to bleed as it ages. And they’re engraved with the details of more than 4,000 lynchings. The monuments hang from the ceiling, airing out centuries of racial grievances.

Even a 15-year-old can’t ignore the visually-arresting design.

AUDIO: It was definitely a creative way of doing it. In addition to being like a beautiful building in itself, it’s kind of hard to merge those kinds of things, that evocative piece of architecture with, like, with a functional aspect of it.

The lynching era isn’t just a brutal footnote in history. It’s proof of racial sin. Stevenson says it’s time to acknowledge that. It’s time to stop romanticizing pockets of the past.

STEVENSON: When you go to South Africa, you are confronted with the legacy of apartheid. If you go to Rwanda, they make sure you understand genocide. The Germans actually want you to go to Auschwitz to confront soberly that legacy. 

Organizers say response to the memorial has exceeded expectations.

KIM: Here in the parking lot are tags from Oregon, Texas, Louisiana,
Kentucky, California. 

One of the rental cars belongs to a writer from Washington, D.C. She has an interview scheduled in a nearby town in about an hour, but she couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit the new memorial. She tried to describe her experience with three adjectives.

AUDIO: Upsetting, surprising. It’s not really a word, but honoring of  what’s happened. 

Meanwhile, construction continues around the memorial. There’s a new community engagement center across the street. Shuttle service is expanding. New restaurants and hotels are opening soon.

And visitors like this gentleman from New York are quick to explain why seeing the monuments and reading the markers is important. 

VISITOR: They had to be honored, because in life they were dishonored. 

More than 400,000 people have walked through the memorial since its opening. They learn about individuals like Rev. T. A. Allen, a minister who tried to teach sharecroppers about their rights. Landowners got together and lynched him for it. 

Such stories leave visitors like the writer from DC emotional and somber.

But there’s an option for a tangible response as well. Duplicate monuments, with the same dimensions and engravings as those in the pavilion, line walkways at the memorial. They wait for communities to claim them and install them in their respective counties across the United States.

O, FREEDOM! LYRICS: No more weeping. Don’t ‘cha know? No more weeping.

The staff at the Equal Justice Institute anticipate transfers will begin this year.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Kim Henderson reporting from Montgomery, Alabama.

(Photo/Memorial for Peace and Justice)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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