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Peace And Justice Memorial Seeks To Make Horror Of Lynching Understood


As a young graduate of Harvard Law School, back in the 1980s, Bryan Stevenson headed to Montgomery, Ala., to represent people who had received a death sentence. Alabama is one of the states most likely to sentence people to death. So when Alabama also became one of the few to stop paying for legal assistance to people on death row, Stevenson created a non-profit to take over that work which earned him a prestigious MacArthur grant. And then his group, the Equal Justice Initiative, took on another task researching the details behind the more than 4,400 lynchings, public executions of men, women, and children without benefit of trial, often including torture, often in front of enormous crowds that took place in the U.S. from 1877 to 1950.

Now, Stevenson's work has gone in yet another direction in the form of two projects that opened in Montgomery last week - The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial to the victims of lynching, and the Legacy Museum, a deeply researched interactive museum that makes the case for a link between the horrors of the past and pressing issues of the moment such as police violence against unarmed citizens and mass incarceration. I participated in several discussions at a conference that accompanied the opening of the memorial.

I asked Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and a memorial, to tell us more, and he's with us now. Bryan Stevenson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Oh, it's a real pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: You know, the memorial itself has gotten rave reviews for the design. You know, it features a pillar for every county in the U.S. in which a lynching took place and the known details - names, dates inscribed on each pillar. And you follow these pillars as they are arranged around a square. They're hanging over you much as a victim's body would until the scale of it becomes, you know, overwhelming. I mean, critics have called it devastating, uncompromising, clear-sighted. How would you describe what you were hoping to accomplish with this project?

STEVENSON: Well, we did want to make the horror of this era understood. And we've been so silent about this period in American history where thousands of black people were pulled out of their homes, they were burned, they were drowned, they were hanged in these spectacles of ritual violence, and it left such a stain on this country that shadows us today. And so, for me, it's been deeply problematic that we don't talk about this. So, we did want to do something that was big that presented not only the era of racial-terror lynchings but contextualized it with slavery, because you can't understand what happened after emancipation between reconstruction and World War II without understanding the background of slavery.

And so, creating a space where people would first see a slave sculpture and then have this intimate relationship with these monuments that present the names and places where this violence took place was for us really, really critical. And, you know, lynching was gratuitous. They didn't have to hang people and lift those bodies up, but they did it because they wanted to traumatize, and terrorize, and taunt communities of color. And that aspect of lynching - the terrorism that accompanied it was, for us, important to express. And I think the memorial was trying to achieve that in its design and in the way, we wanted people to make this journey.

MARTIN: You make the linkage with the memorial and also what the museum. It's important to, sort of, see the two together. You make the linkage very clearly between lynching and the subsequent issues that are very much in the news today like police killings of unarmed black people, the vastly disproportionate rates at which black adults and black children are incarcerated. What is the linkage in your view?

STEVENSON: Well, I think that we created a nation that embraced a narrative of racial difference. I actually think America is a post-genocide society and we haven't talked about what happened to native people when Europeans came to this continent. We slaughtered them by the millions through famine, and war, and disease. And we rationalized that by creating this narrative that native people are different racially and because they're different, we can say they're savages. I think that same narrative is what allowed our nation to get comfortable with slavery.

And for me, the great evil of American slavery wasn't involuntary servitude. It wasn't forced labor. It was this ideology of white supremacy, this narrative of racial difference where black people were perceived as not human, not fully evolved, not the same as other people. And I think when we passed the 13th Amendment, in 1865, we expressly ended involuntary servitude and forced labor, but we didn't say anything about this narrative of racial difference and because of that, slavery didn't end. It evolved.

MARTIN: Why was it important that this project be in Montgomery? I think a number of people may have said, well, you know, there's this big museum in Washington, D.C., African-American History and Culture, that touches on some of these issues. But it's also my understanding that you felt very strongly it needed to be in Montgomery. Why is that?

STEVENSON: Well, I think that Montgomery is probably the most appropriate place I can identify because, you know, Montgomery prides itself on being the cradle of the Confederacy. It's also a region where lynchings and racial terrorism was epidemic. It's the city where Rosa Parks and Dr. King began fighting against segregation. Alabama has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country which means that we have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. So, we're in many ways, at the epicenter of all of the challenges and problems our history of racial inequality has created.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you know, we are in the middle of a very hot debate in this country over memorials. I mean, the fact is that the governor of Alabama signed a law earlier this year saying that you cannot remove any Confederate memorials from the state for - somewhat - two decades. Do you feel that your project provides an answer in some way to that?

STEVENSON: Yeah, I definitely think it's relevant. I mean, I just don't believe we've been very honest about what these memorials and Confederate monuments actually represent. These monuments were not erected to remind people about a particular history. They were erected to actually reinforce a commitment to white supremacy. A lot of these memorials and monuments were actually erected in the 1950s as symbols of resistance to integration. And I just think we haven't been honest, and critical, and thoughtful about what it means to honor the architects and defenders of slavery - people who were saying segregation forever.

And when we have a consciousness about that, which I'm hoping our memorial and our monument might help feed, then I think our relationship to those institutions, to those symbols changes, and for me, that's the goal - to create a deeper understanding of our history so we understand what's appropriate to honor and what's not appropriate to honor. I don't think we're there yet, but if we get there, I believe the landscape will change and when that landscape changes, I think we'll create an environment that encourages racial equality and justice and doesn't divide us and keep us constrained by these different histories that we carry around in our heads.

MARTIN: That's Bryan Stevenson. He's founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and the memorial that we were just talking about, the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. He's also the author of The New York Times best-seller "Just Mercy." We reached him at his office in Montgomery, Ala. Bryan Stevenson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

STEVENSON: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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