Visitors to the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice first glimpse them, eerily, in the distance: Brown rectangular slabs, 800 in all, inscribed with the names of more than 4,000 souls who lost their lives in lynchings between 1877 and 1950.
The memorial and an accompanying museum that open this week in Montgomery are a project of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, a legal advocacy group in Montgomery. The organization says the two sites will be the nation’s first “comprehensive memorial dedicated to racial terror lynchings of African Americans and the legacy of slavery and racial inequality in America.”
There is one column for each of the 800 U.S. counties where researchers uncovered lynchings. Most of the roughly 4,400 killings happened in the South, but states coast-to-coast are represented.
Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, said he wanted to create a space for people to confront and “deal honestly with this history,” just as South Africa has sites about apartheid and Germany memorializes victims of the Holocaust.
“We don’t have many places in America where we have urged people to look at the history of racial inequality, to look at the history of slavery, of lynching, of segregation,” said Stevenson, who is black.
The memorial opens the same week that Alabama marks Confederate Memorial Day, an official state holiday in which state offices will close.
Beyond the sculptures are the monuments to those who lost their lives to “racial terror” lynchings after the Civil War. A section of epitaphs gives the brief story behind some the names:
— “Fred Rochelle, 16, was burned alive in a public spectacle lynching before thousands in Polk County, Florida, in 1901.”
— “David Walker, his wife and their four children were lynched in Hickman, Kentucky, in 1908 after Mr. Walker was accused of using inappropriate language with a white woman.”
Relatives of Thomas Miles Sr., a black business owner lynched in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1912, visited the site on Monday. First they visited the museum, where dirt taken from the site of several lynchings, including Miles, is displayed. Then they stopped by the memorial.
“I was crying. I felt anger. I felt frustration. I wanted to talk. I wanted to be quiet. There were so many emotions,” said Shirah Dedman, who grew up knowing only that her great grandfather was lynched and that her family had fled the South because of it.
Other descendants of victims want to hope to make the trip to Alabama to see the memorial.
The museum explores the eras of enslavement, lynching and modern criminal justice issues that are the focus of the Equal Justice Initiative’s legal work. Several of the organization’s clients are featured, including Ray Hinton, a man whose conviction was overturned after 30 years on Alabama’s death row.