MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Bryan Stevenson grew up a product of Brown vs. the Board of Education; as a child, he was not allowed to go to school with white children. After the landmark case, though, he said he was able to attend high school, then college, then ultimately he went to law school and was able to create the Equal Justice Initiative.
EJI is an organization that challenges racial and economic injustice, and protects human rights of vulnerable members of society. On Thursday, EJI will open its Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice to the public. Journalists from around the country were granted the opportunity Monday to tour both the museum and the memorial ahead of the grand opening.
Both sites are meant to address tough topics rarely discussed in the United States. The Legacy Museum, which is located inside a warehouse used to hold slaves in Montgomery, contains statues and interactive exhibits that immerse visitors in the history of the domestic slave trade, racial terrorism, Jim Crow South, and mass incarceration.
A few blocks away is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which acknowledges the thousands of victims of lynchings in the south. The six-acre site overlooks Montgomery, and inside are hanging pillars. In the first corridor, the pillars hang at eye level, displaying the names of the victims and the counties where they were murdered. In the second corridor, the pillars begin to rise as the floor slopes, until they are all suspended above the visitors' heads; this is meant to mimic how victims of racial terror were raised high by the mobs who killed them.
"The whole point of lynching was to raise up this violence," Stevenson said. "They wanted the African American community to see the battered, bloody bodies that they had destroyed."
Most of the lynchings after the Civil War were used as a way to instill fear in a community that could no longer be enslaved. According to "Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror," black people were lynched for reasons ranging from accusations of committing crimes to speaking to white women. In some cases, victims were killed as a proxy when the original target could not be located.
Stevenson said visitors should leave the museum and memorial feeling "shattered and haunted" by the history laid out.
"It should hang over us until we address it with sufficient commitment that we can actually believe we've turned a corner," Stevenson said.
Montgomery was chosen as the site for the museum and memorial for its prominent role in the international and domestic slave trade. Legacy Museum is just a few feet away from a station where tens of thousands of black people were trafficked during the nineteenth century. Slaves were forced to build the railroad connecting Montgomery to Columbus, GA, which then connected to Atlanta.
"Everybody needed slavery to continue," Stevenson said. "The banks, the hotels, the restaurants, the businesses - everybody."
Montgomery is a city shaped by slavery, with two thirds of the people living there before the Civil War enslaved. The city also had one of the highest lynching rates in the region, another reason it was chosen as the site for the museum and memorial.
Though the museum and memorial seek to acknowledge the past, another focus is on the more contemporary issue of mass incarceration. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with the majority of prisoners being housed in the south. In 1972, less than 200,000 people were incarcerated, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. As of 2018, 2.2 million people are behind bars. Part of EJI's mission is to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the country, and several of the museum exhibits address how that issue disproportionately affects the African-American community; according to EJI, one in three black men is projected to go to jail or prison in his lifetime.
A lack of acknowledgment of past wrongfulness has shaped the U.S., according to Stevenson, which in turn has led to the racial inequalities we see today. Though the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is the first of its kind, memorials celebrating the Confederacy can be found throughout the south.
One in particular stands in front of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery; it's a statue of Dr. James Marion Sims, the "Father of Modern Gynecology." Sims is hailed for developing methods to save the lives of women during child labor. However, he developed these methods through brutal experiments on enslaved black women, operating under the notion that black people didn't feel pain.
Confederate general Robert E. Lee and Confederacy president Jefferson Davis are also honored throughout the region, with two of the largest high schools in Montgomery named after the men. Though a culture of "we don't talk about it" prevails in the country in regards to slavery, lynching, and segregation, hallmarks celebrating those who fought to continue racial injustice continue to stand with the support of communities.
Stevenson said the most common response to the museum and memorial from visitors is "I didn't know." He hopes visitors will leave and open up a dialogue with others about what they learned, and he hopes they will return to absorb more of what the sites have to offer. Counties are also welcome to take the pillars holding the names of the victims in their area back to their communities, helping spread the memorial and exact change on a local level.
Stevenson said people haven't said "Never again" enough about slavery and racial terror; EJI aims to have people saying just that.