Jane Carroll visits a new memorial which aims to heal a dark period of American history
In the first of two articles in which we explore contemporary reconciliation movements, Jane Carroll contemplates the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, USA, which took place in April 2018. This commemorates, for the first time, the thousands of African Americans who were lynched in the southern states of America in the years after emancipation. This project is just one example of memorials recognising injustice and oppression now being created all over the world. This is an entirely modern phenomenon, seeming to indicate a new kind of commitment to peace and forgiveness.
A quote from Martin Luther King, engraved at the entrance, lays out the intentions of the Memorial:
True Peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of Justice.
Montgomery is the right place for such a monument. In the heart of the South, it was the centre of the domestic slave trade in 19th-century America, but also the cradle of the Civil Rights movement, beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 when Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat for a white passenger. It was where Martin Luther King had his first church and became the spokesman of the movement at the age of 26. It was also, in 1956, where he gave the sermon from which the quote above comes.
Both the Memorial and the Legacy Museum which has been built alongside it are the inspiration of Bryan Stevenson, author of a best-selling book, Just Mercy, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a public interest law organisation which defends death row inmates and is committed to “protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society”. In his work, and in the memorial and accompanying museum, he makes the powerful case that real peace requires justice and that justice requires accountability.
Lynchings in America were not isolated hate crimes committed by rogue vigilantes. Lynchings were targeted racial violence perpetrated to uphold an unjust social order.
The subsequent movement of the African-American population to the northern cities, where they were to encounter other forms of discrimination, constitutes the largest mass migration in US history. The Legacy Museum draws a line connecting slavery through the period of lynchings and the Jim Crow laws in the South to the mass incarceration of people of colour today. Stevenson wants this story told in order to understand the present – “not to punish America but to liberate it”.
A Global Movement Towards Reconciliation
The establishment of places or processes through which we can examine our own past wrongs is actually a new phenomenon, and the desire to create them can be seen as part of a global movement which is taking place towards reconciliation and forgiveness. Stevenson was inspired to set up the Alabama Memorial by examples in other parts of the world, in particular the Holocaust Museum in Berlin, the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda which commemorates the million Rwandans killed in the 1994 civil war.
As for the fruits of such self-examination, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the founders of the South African Reconciliation Movement which was implemented to heal the wounds of Apartheid, has pointed out that we cannot move forward by just covering over or forgetting past injustices: “Bygones will not be bygones just because we say so”. We have to face up to the past in order to come to a proper understanding of ourselves and our world, and it is only through this that we can ensure that such things will not happen again. Thus the opening statement to the Memorial begins:
We believe that telling the truth about the age of racial terror and reflecting together on this period and its legacy can lead to a more thoughtful and informed commitment to justice today. We hope that this Memorial will inspire individuals, communities and this nation to claim our difficult history and commit to a just and peaceful future.
Justice and Love
Bryan Stevenson. Photograph: courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative / Human Pictures
O my people out yonder, hear me… hear me now.
Love your heart. For this is the prize.
Quote: EJI Photograph: Jane Carroll
First inset: Billie Holiday
Other Sources (click to view)
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Speigel & Grau, New York; reprint 2015)
For more on Equal Justice Initiative, see https://eji.org
For more on Jacob Lawrence’s ‘Migration Series’ see https://lawrencemigration.phillipscollection.org/the-migration-series
Toni Morrison, Beloved (Vintage Classics, New York, 2007)
For an interview with Toni Morrison see http://www.alainelkanninterviews.com/toni-morrison
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