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A national memorial confronts the terror of lynching

Warning: This piece contains disturbing images.

A new memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, looks to confront one of this country’s greatest shames: its brutal history of racial terror and the systematic lynching of thousands of African Americans.

The National Memorial to Peace and Justice is a tribute to those victims. It’s the brainchild of civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson and his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that offers legal representation to the poor and those wrongfully convicted.

“Most of us have no understanding about the legacy of slavery, we have no understanding about the era of lynching,” Stevenson told the NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown. “Black people were routinely pulled out of their homes and hanged, and burned, and drowned, and mutilated, and tortured, sometimes on the public square with thousands of people cheering on that torture and violence.”

The memorial is made up of more than 800 rusted, steel columns that are suspended from the ceiling. Each represents an American county in which a lynching took place between 1877 and 1950. Etched on each of the markers are the names of victims and the dates they were killed. Some have only a few, others have dozens.

Stevenson says instead of facing this period in our history, we’ve ignored it and its legacy. In doing so, he says, we’ve been unable to meaningfully address the racial injustice plaguing America today.

“It’s only when we find a way to talk about these things, when we tell the truth about these things, that we can create new relationships. That’s what truth and reconciliation is about,” Stevenson says. “We are constrained by the smog created by this history and to deal with that we’re going to have to clean the air. We’re going to have to talk about some things we haven’t talked about before.”

Read the Full Transcript

  • BRYAN STEVENSON:

    It speaks to a difficult past, a difficult history.

  • JEFFRY BROWN:

    It’s a haunting feeling, to descend beneath a forest of steel columns, symbols of a haunted American past — the systematic lynching of thousands of African Americans.

    As we walk, they rise. So it becomes, what?

  • BRYAN STEVENSON:

    Yes, well it becomes more sobering to now know that these figures are being raised up above you, this violence is being raised above you. But that was the menace, and the threat, and the terror that lynching was meant to create.

  • JEFFRY BROWN:

    The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a project led by civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, sits on six acres on a grass hill overlooking downtown Montgomery. Construction continued during our visit.

    This is a city resonant with the history of racial strife — the first “White House” of the Confederacy, statues and memorials to Confederate leaders, the church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, the bus stop where Rosa Parks became a symbol of resistance.

    It’s also home to Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, a legal advocacy organization, which documented more than 4,400 lynchings between 1877 and 1950, putting names and stories to mostly forgotten victims.

  • BRYAN STEVENSON:

    Most of us have no understanding about the legacy of slavery, we have no understanding about the era of lynching. Black people were routinely pulled out of their homes and hanged and burned and drowned and mutilated and tortured sometimes on the public square with thousands of people cheering on that torture and violence.

  • JEFFRY BROWN:

    At the memorial, more than 800 rectangular steel monuments, suspended from the ceiling, rising in height, rusted and stained, some as if bleeding.

    Each represents a country where lynchings occured, with victims’ names and dates of death. Some with just a few, others wth dozens. And many more unknown.

  • BRYAN STEVENSON:

    It’s only when we find a way to talk about these things when we tell the truth about these things that we can create new relationships that’s what truth and reconciliation is about. It’s just that we can’t skip any steps. Truth and reconciliation is sequential. You’ve got to tell the truth first and then you get to reconciliation.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I mean this is a kind of, I don’t know if obsession is the right word, but this missing link in our history from slavery to let’s say the civil rights movement.

  • BRYAN STEVENSON:

    Yeah, it is a compulsion. I want to be free. I want all of us to be free. And I don’t think any of us are free, black or white. We are constrained by the smog created by this history and to deal with that we’re going to have to clean the air. We’re going to have to talk about some things we haven’t talked about before.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One of the names here — Elmore Bolling, killed in 1947 in Lowndes County, Alabama, less than 30 miles from Montgomery.

  • JOSEPHINE BOLLING MCCALL:

    He was killed simply because he was too prosperous to be a Negro farmer.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    JOSEPHINE BOLLING MCCALL WAS JUST 5 WHEN IT HAPPENED.

    ONE WHITE MAN WAS ARRESTED AT THE TIME BUT NEVER PROSECUTED.

    HER FATHER HAD STARTED A BUSINESS EMPLOYING OTHER AFRICAN AMERICANS. AND JOSEPHINE BELIEVES HE WAS MURDERED FOR VIOLATING THE RACIST SOCIAL CONTRACT OF THE TIME.

  • JOSEPHINE BOLLING MCCALL:

    It was maintaining status quo and that is the black man was never supposed to achieve the level and level of success that white men had. We were never to aspire. it even killed your aspirations when you think about when someone is murdered like that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    She remembers not just the terror from her father’s killing — their family fled to Montgomery shortly after his death — but the pain that came from justice denied.

  • JOSEPHINE BOLLING MCCALL:

    There’s an emptiness that one doesn’t get over easily especially when you are wondering why. Why was he so brutally killed? And then once you find out that it’s really for naught, then it really. really hurts.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Along with the memorial, Stevenson’s organization created the Legacy Museum downtown that traces African-American history through four eras.

    It begins with “Enslavement” and recognizes the troubled past of this very site, once used to warehouse slaves.

    In the period of “Lynching and Racial Terror” during “Reconstruction,” postcards in which white spectators pose by hanging bodies, and large jars containing the actual soil from the ground where lynchings occurred.

    In the 20th century, into the Civil Rights era — a collection of laws across the country, some banning activities as trivial as playing cards with a black person.

    Finally, our own time, a period of “Mass Incarceration.” Stevenson has spent decades defending wrongfully convicted prisoners — some of whose stories can be heard here.

  • BRYAN STEVENSON:

    I think slavery didn’t end, it evolved. And for the last 160 years, 170 years we’ve been dealing with the legacy of slavery. And you can see that manifest in lynching and in segregation and presumptions of dangerousness and guilt that challenges us today. I see young kids who are being born into a world where they are still weighed down with that burden. And so I want to get us to the point where we get past that. That’s how we’re going to get past these police shooting of unarmed black men and women. That’s how we’re going to get past the wrongful convictions of people of color. We’re not going to get there if we don’t deal with this legacy.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You are of course forcing people in some way to look at ugly things.

  • BRYAN STEVENSON:

    I mean you can’t live in a community where most people in the community came out and cheered while someone was burned alive, where someone was tortured, where someone was hanged, and expect to be a healthy community by never talking about it. It just doesn’t work that way. That stuff festers. It’s too traumatizing it’s too painful it’s too terrifying to just evaporate. It’s in the air, and communities of color still feel that pain that menace that anguish and they’re being told they can’t talk about it either.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Stevenson modeled his new project on those in other countries, such as Germany and South Africa, which have publicly faced their pasts.

    Where are we in remembering?

  • BRYAN STEVENSON:

    We are nowhere. I mean we’re the opposite we’re actually trying to romanticize these periods that are actually periods of great trauma and shame and that’s why I think these these projects are so important. We should create a new kind of iconography that we can all be proud of. I don’t want segregated iconography, segregated memorials. I want an honest accounting of our history, a reckoning with our history. And then I want to see how we deal with that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    To that end, Stevenson is creating replicas of each of these markers, and inviting counties to take theirs home for public display in memory of the victims.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Montgomery, Alabama.

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