Memorial for Lynching Victims a First Step Toward Reconciliation

It offers a place of reckoning for generations of racial trauma.
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More than 4,000 African Americans were lynched from 1877 to 1950, giving rise to The Great Migration—as over 6 million African Americans left the South to resettle in the North and West. 

Photo courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative/Human Pictures

When she saw the name Ed Bracy on a placard in the The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, 68-year-old Sophia Bracy Harris felt goosebumps. “I just went frozen for a moment,” she recalls. This was the relative she remembers hearing about as a child growing up in Elmore County, just north of Montgomery, Alabama. The story goes, Ed Bracy was hanged for his work organizing tenant farmers in the mid-1930s.

“In that moment, I was aware that this was a family member, that this was a direct connection to me,” she says.

More than 4,000 African Americans were lynched from 1877 to 1950, giving rise to The Great Migration—as over 6 million African Americans left the South to resettle in the North and West. African Americans account for some 70 percent of recorded lynchings and nearly 80 percent of lynchings that occurred in the American South, according to the NAACP. The lynchings by White mobs instilled fear in Black communities, and that history continues to haunt African Americans today.

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Built by the Equal Justice Initiative, a project founded by author and civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, the Montgomery memorial is the first site to focus on the legacy of slavery and lynching. Alabama was one of the largest slave-owning states in the country. And as both the cradle of the Confederacy and the birthplace of the civil rights movement, the location is appropriate. Nearby is the indoor venue the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Both opened to the public earlier this year. And last month, EJI opened its bookstore and cafe with a reflection and sharing space for visitors.

African American history “casts a shadow across the American landscape,” Stevenson explained in a press statement. “This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”

It took over three years to create the $15 million project, which opened in April. With the museum drawing over 3,000 visitors a week, the city of Montgomery has already seen an economic impact since its opening. The museum and city officials expect the numbers to grow this summer.

Set on a 6-acre site with 800-foot monuments representing the counties and states where people were lynched, the memorial first greets visitors with images of barely clothed enslaved Africans in chains, followed by a history of slavery, lynching, and racial terror. The names of lynching victims are engraved on columns, some hanging from the ceiling, evoking Black bodies hanged from trees decades ago.

The memorial acts as a hub for truth-telling and reconciliation.

Bracy Harris was an adviser on the memorial's planning. She lived through the segregated South, narrowly escaping the firebombing of her family home by the Ku Klux Klan when she was 16 years old. She and her siblings often feared for their lives while traveling back and forth to school given the frequency of racially motivated attacks.

A White bus driver who would often try to stop attacks from older White students on the journey home was her only positive interaction with a White person until she began to attend summer camps out of state and joined the multicultural coalitions organizing around civil rights.

“From day to day we didn’t know if we were going to be lynched on the way home,” Bracy Harris reflected. “He was the only White friend we thought we had. We sat at the front of the bus for protection, and you could tell that this man cared about our well-being.”

She never thought she’d see such a memorial in her lifetime, that there could be a place of reckoning for generations of racial trauma: the violent racism she faced as a child, the suffering endured by all those who came before her, and the promise of healing.

As intended, the memorial acts as a hub for truth-telling and reconciliation for Bracy Harris and countless others.

Andrea Rabinowitz, a birthright Quaker with Jewish ancestry who grew up on the edge Harlem during the Great Depression, was with Bracy Harris when she discovered her relative’s name in the exhibit. They have been friends for over 30 years. Though she says she can never fully grasp the historical pain of African Americans, her visit resonated deeply after a lifetime of civil rights activism.

“It brings up anger, sadness, fear, and all kinds of emotions … just overwhelming pathos,” she says.

Former CBS anchor-turned-sculptor Dana King was among the artists selected by Stevenson to contribute to the memorial. Her piece, “Guided by Justice,” pays tribute to the women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Each of the three figures represents the possible range of a woman’s life: a young mother-to-be, an educator, and a wise elder. King sculpted the women in the likeness of her great-grandmother, a freed slave; her aunt, an educator in segregated South; and an unidentified woman, who she says is “very remarkable.”

“It was a way for me to honor them in a way that they had never been honored in life … it’s the most personal thing I’ve ever done,” King says. “As a sculptor you’re creating a visual that represents life. I want people to look at these sculptures and see their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and cousins.”

King says it is with the power and strength of the last line of the Maya Angelou poem “And Still I Rise” that she sculpted those pieces: “I am the dream and the hope of the slave.”