Today, the first memorial for the victims of white supremacy in the United States opens in Montgomery, Alabama.
Located on a hill above the state’s capital city, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice commemorates the lives of more than 4,000 black people who were lynched for the crime of having the wrong skin color. The memorial, designed by Mass Design Group in collaboration with the Equal Justice Initiative, is the centerpiece of the Legacy Museum, which also opens today nearby on the site of a former warehouse where enslaved people were kept. The museum traces the history of racial inequality from slavery to lynching to Jim Crow to today’s era of mass incarceration.
The memorial itself is composed of 800 six-foot steel plinths, suspended from the ceiling of a large covered walkway. Each gravestone-like column represents the counties in the United States where a racially motivated lynching took place, with the names of those who were murdered engraved into the steel. The concrete floor below them slopes downward. They begin at eye level, but as you begin to make your way through the memorial your eye is forced up–just like the spectators from decades ago who were complicit in perpetuating these acts of racial terrorism, as the New York Times describes.
However the memorial, the museum explains, “is more than a static monument.” In the park surrounding this haunting structure, there are identical copies of all 800 blocks. People in the counties they belong to can submit a form online to request their corresponding block be moved to their county permanently. “EJI invites each of these counties to retrieve their county’s monument and place it back in the county where the terror lynchings took place,” the group explains. “This National Memorial for Peace and Justice hopes to have component pieces all over the United States where racial terror lynchings have been documented.” To claim a block, EJI asks what the person or organization has done “to address racial and economic injustice and inequality in your community.” Then it will decide where exactly these mini-monuments will be distributed.
Several dozen requests have been made so far; as more counties reckon with their history and request their blocks, the park will slowly empty out. In this sense, the design will act as a physical barometer of how many parts of America have–or have not–confronted their wrongdoing.
The memorial is based on eight years of research from EJI, which tracked down the names of the thousands of people who were lynched. As the New York Times remarked, “There is nothing like it in the country.”
For more photos, see the slide show above.