For over 150 years, the city of Montgomery, Alabama has been known as the “Cradle of the Confederacy.” In 1861, the city played a central role in the formation of the Confederate States of America, a group of 11 US states that sought to secede from the union and maintain slavery.
But now, in 2018, Montgomery is making new efforts to acknowledge and reflect on the horrifying history of American slavery and racism. On April 26, the city opened the nation’s first memorial and museum devoted to the history of lynchings in the US.
The project, spearheaded by a nonprofit called the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), pays tribute to lynching victims and chronicles the dark parts of the African-American experience – from slavery to today’s national epidemic of mass incarceration.
Take a look at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum below.
The national memorial and museum explores the history of lynchings, slavery, and racism in the US since the country’s founding.
The 6-acre site overlooks Montgomery.
The museum and memorial seek to create a dialogue about America’s long history of racial injustice, EJI’s founder, Bryan Stevenson, told Business Insider.
In the early 1860s, the US was at a turning point in its history. Following the election of Abraham Lincoln — an opponent of slavery — 11 states announced they would secede.
Serving as the capital of the Confederate States, Montgomery invited delegates from the southern states to draft a constitution for a new nation in 1861. That earned the city a nickname: the “Cradle of the Confederacy.”
“Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape,” Stevenson said. “This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of colour, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”
The memorial includes several works of art. Visitors see Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s sculpture, pictured below, when they enter.
The memorial features 800 6-foot-tall metal blocks, which represent the 4,400 people who were killed by lynchings at the hands of white mobs between 1877 and 1950 in the US.
To count the total number of victims and confirm their names, Stevenson and a team of researchers went through court records and local newspapers and spoke to local historians and family members of victims, according to CNN.
When visitors go into the memorial, the blocks hang over their heads.
Each county has its own monument engraved with the names of the victims, along with the dates of their deaths.
Around the perimeter, there are matching, smaller plaques that EJI plans to give to each of the counties.
The nearby Legacy Museum chronicles America’s history of slavery, lynching, segregation, and mass incarceration.
The 11,000-square-foot building is located on the site of a former warehouse where slaves were imprisoned after being taken to Montgomery.
The museum is also steps away from a dock and rail station where tens of thousands of black people were trafficked during the 19th century.
As part of EJI’s Community Remembrance Project, the museum includes a display with jars of soil collected from lynching sites and engraved with the names of victims.
“We must address oppressive histories by helping communities to honestly and soberly recognise the pain of the past,” the organisation said.
The timing of the memorial and museum’s opening is especially relevant in 2018.
In the past two years, the country has seen a rising number of public displays of white-supremacist pride.Cities across the US are also debating whether to keep or discard their Confederate symbols – statues, school names, and street signs – from public spaces.
Nearly a dozen cities have removed Confederate monuments in the past year.
In an interview with Business Insider, Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange said he doesn’t plan to push for the removal of Confederate symbols in the city, including the name of Robert E. Lee High School, which is comprised predominantly of black students.
“I don’t think taking them down changes history … We don’t go out and salute [the Confederate symbols] every day,” he said. “The truth is I don’t really think about it.”
Montgomery became an centrepiece of the Civil Rights Movement in the ’50s and ’60s, after activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus in 1955, igniting a yearlong bus boycott in the city.
The Alabama State Capitol Building in Montgomery also served as the end point of the third and final march for voting rights from Selma, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.
Strange said it’s important for Montgomery to not hide from its past so that communities can heal.
“By looking at the past, it’s a reminder not to go back to those times,” he said.
Usher, Common, The Roots, Kirk Franklin, and more will perform at the opening ceremony of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum on April 26.
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