Exhibit of the week
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice
A long-neglected chapter in U.S. history has just been made “breathtakingly visible,” said Brent Staples in The New York Times. A national lynching memorial, funded by a nonprofit organization, opened last week on a hill overlooking Montgomery, Ala., and amazingly, it “represents America’s first major effort to confront the vast scope of the racial-terror lynchings” that, for several decades following Reconstruction, “ravaged the African-American community in the South.” Between 1877 and 1950, white mobs lynched roughly 4,400 African-Americans, usually in ghoulish public spectacles, and often for no offense graver than walking behind a white woman, asserting the right to vote, or competing with whites in business. White spectators would gather by the hundreds, dressed in their Sunday best and with children in tow, to witness the dismembering, burning, and hanging of the accused. Across the South, these bloody carnivals “terrified black communities into submission,” and their legacy “haunts the country still.”
From a distance, the new memorial “resembles the colonnade of the Lincoln Memorial,” said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. But what at first appear to be supporting columns turn out to be human-scaled pillars hanging from the structure’s ceiling, each made of oxidized steel and bearing the name of one of 805 counties where at least one lynching occurred. The names of the victims are listed, too, and as you walk among them, the ground slopes gradually downward until the columns dangle overhead like bodies. The concept, by Boston-based MASS Design Group, borrows from other major memorials around the world, but this is a “smarter and more intellectually ambitious” work than many others, as effective as any in this country since Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial. As you walk among the columns, a sense of serenity mutates into uneasiness, said Alexis Okeowo in The New Yorker. “By the time the ground gave way, so that the monuments hovered over my head, the experience was devastating.”
The experience doesn’t end there, said Angela Helm in TheRoot.com. Duplicates of the steel plinths lie like coffins in the surrounding 6-acre park, challenging each named county to eventually own up to its part in the violence and carry the marker home for local display. Visitors who make a 15-minute walk can learn more at the Legacy Museum, also created by the nonprofit, Equal Justice Initiative, where photographs, documents, and videos make the argument that the lynchings belong to a larger campaign of oppression that extends from slavery to today’s era of mass incarceration. Down one dark corridor, you encounter black-and-white holograms of slaves penned in small cells, and each figure shares a story when you approach—except for two female slaves, who sing a mournful spiritual. “It will haunt you,” as it should.