I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice for the first time last week. Located in Montgomery, Alabama, and memorializing victims of racial terror lynchings in the United States, its very name suggests its novel character and moving mission. Its form evokes deep experiences of both remembrance and empowerment.
“For” not “to”
Generally our memorials bare the names of past events or persons as in the Lincoln Memorial or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Sometimes they are simply known by their location as in the Oklahoma City National Memorial. The reality they remember is seemingly is too hard to name. Occasionally, the preposition “to” is used. The names of Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe or the Memorial to the Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia suggest that they are in some sense an offering, in these cases an offering of reparation.
When the word “memorial” is connected with a present reality, however, the word “to” can cause problems. Thus was in 1964 when President Johnson suggested at the National Prayer Breakfast that a “memorial to God” be built in Washington, D.C. Johnson intended it as a physical extension of the piety that had brought the phrase “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance a decade earlier and that had enabled Martin Luther King to link God and American freedom in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial six months earlier. But “memorial to God” was a “semantic blunder.” It was wrong, a Methodist editor explained because it “speaks of God in the past tense” (New York Times, March 15, 1964). The idea was quickly abandoned.
While many headlines announcing the Montgomery memorial’s opening in April 2018 referred to it as “a lynching memorial,” Bryan Stevenson and the other developers of the memorial did not choose this name. Many memorials are silent as to the proper response to the events they recall. Their purpose is to remember, sometimes to celebrate. They expose a tragedy or extol a hero, but the response they desire is less clear. One thinks in this respect of the simple list of names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or even the more heroic arches and wreaths of the World War II Memorial. In contrast this is a memorial is unambiguous about its purpose to encourage peace and justice.
A Path to Walk
Visitors encounter it through a clear processional path that leads them both around and through all sides of the square, colonnaded, hilltop temple. While the memorial looks like a place to go it, it is actually a path to walk. In this respect, the memorial is more like an interpretive museum than a static monument. Walking south along the memorial’s west side, visitors read signs that explain the development of the story from slavery, through emancipation and reconstruction, to segregation enforced by the racial terror of lynching, to the present day when African Americans are “overrepresented in prisons and jails and underrepresented in decision-making roles in the criminal justice system.” A statuary group by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo vividly depicts the horror of family separation and enslaved person’s defiant humanity.
Then, instructed that the memorial’s purpose is to “inspire individuals, communities, and this nation to claim our difficulty history and commit to a just a peaceful future,” visitors reverse their steps, to ascend to the memorial itself and walk clockwise with the sun where rust-covered corten steel boxes present the visitor with the names of counties and those lynched in them.
Many other writers have described how the rows of memorial boxes, each about as tall as a man transition from a forest of columns through which one walks to symbols of hanging corpses above one’s head as one descends the slope on the memorial square’s northern side. It is a moving and overwhelming experience.
The Comfort of Mountain and Cave
I was struck by the architects’ incorporation of the archetypal experiences of mountain and cave. Ascending the hill, visitors are bathed in the breeze and the sun or the wind and the rain and look down on the valley of the Alabama River and downtown Montgomery. The dome of the State Capitol is just visible between other buildings. But then they descend into the shaded third and fourth sides of the memorial square. There the path proceeds below memorials that loom above and along brief summaries of individual stories, to a memorial wall covered with flowing water.
This cooler, shadowed section provides some comfort, reassurance and shelter from the weather. The flow of the water down the wall only to disappear beneath the floor reminded me of a sinking spring in a cave. In particular I thought of Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace where John Russell Pope’s hilltop temple sheltering the log cabin sits above the steps that descend into the cave with the spring that provided water for the Lincolns.
While the narrative of the memorial is all about the insecurity of victims of racism and the injustice they received, the very form of the memorial arouses the human experience of security. The promontory provides information and advantage on the threats below. The cave with its spring provides shelter and refreshment. The memorial puts visitors in primordial places of power so that they are pushed forward “for peace and justice.”
The Field of Action
With a drinking fountain and an exhortation to love, defiance, and self-respect from Toni Morrison visitors exit the cave and the memorial square into the southern sky over an unshaded field.
Here the struggle for peace and justice resumes. Visitors again reverse themselves to walk counter-clockwise through duplicates of the memorials that hang inside. They are waiting to be reclaimed by counties across the nation that make plans to remember racial terror in their landscape. The future placement of these boxes in locations across the nation will extend the memorial’s presence and help it remake the story told by the built landscape of the south as its planners propose. Earning the right to reclaim the box requires tangible efforts toward peace and justice. Thus immediately upon leaving the memorial square, visitors have something to do.
It will be interesting to see how the absence of some boxes and the presence of others is interpreted by the memorials architects and visitors in the future. For now, with a church wonderfully named the Old Ship of Zion standing outside the fence, the field feels like a graveyard.
To exit the memorial visitors continue counter-clockwise along three sides of the square. Once again they overlook the city with its towers of finance and government and a historic house of worship in the foreground. A statue of individuals sticking their hands up out of a block of concrete provides a final suggestion of the contemporary needs for peace and justice.
The spiral from the hillside out into the city for action reminded me of the concluding stanzas of a hymn for social justice written during the height of racial terror.
O Master, from the mountain side,
make haste to heal these hearts of pain;
among these restless throngs abide,
O tread the city’s streets again;
Till all the world shall learn thy love,
and follow where thy feet have trod;
till glorious from thy heaven above,
shall come the city of our God.
Frank Mason North (1905)