History, Memory, and Racial Violence in America

The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, April 2018 (Photo: Soniakapadia, Wikimedia).

In April 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) opened the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. These sites work in tandem to tell the stories of over 4,000 Black men and women who were lynched between 1877 and 1950. The memorial sits upon a hill where one can look towards the Alabama State Capital. “Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape,” says Bryan Stevenson, the director of the EJI, “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.”

Just one week before the EJI’s museum and memorial opened, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey released a campaign ad in which she emphasized the importance of the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017. The act prohibits the renaming, relocation, removal, or alteration of any monument or building that has resided on public property for forty or more years. She concluded the ad by stating, “We can’t change or erase our history. But here in Alabama, we know something Washington doesn’t, to get where we’re going, means understanding where we’ve been.”

The governor’s comments—coupled with the Preservation Act and couched in terms of preserving the past—privileged the narrative of the Old South and white superiority in their desire to maintain memorials to the Confederacy. In response to Ivey’s ad, Bernard Simelton, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Alabama, told AL.com, “Just when we thought Alabama was beginning to turn the corner in race relations, we see our governor wanting to continue to remind African Americans and people of color where Alabama stands when it comes to race relations.” The EJI’s museum and memorial exist as a counter to Governor Ivey’s misrepresentation of the past. It is a direct refutation to the mythological narratives of the idyllic Old South that have shaped our history and continue to influence our nation today.

Some Montgomery residents view the EJI’s museum and memorial as unnecessary. They claim that it opens up old wounds. Others, like Bob Wieland, the curator of the First White House of the Confederacy, supports the EJI’s museum and memorial. However, Wieland argues that the city should maintain the First White House of the Confederacy ensure that the city maintains “a positive taste, an old south taste.” Wieland believes Montgomery is changing as the “sleepy old cotton south falls away.” Like Ivey, Wieland fears the loss of a constructed fantasy that valorizes and mythologizes the Old South. The First White House of the Confederacy does not tell the history of slavery. Immediately across the street from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King, Jr. served as minister, a “monument” erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy stands to “remember” the parade route that Jefferson Davis took during his inauguration as the president of the Confederate States of America (CSA).

These statements showcase what Stevenson describes as the “shadow across the American landscape.” They also raise critical questions about the importance of sites like the EJI museum and memorial for preserving the history of racial violence in the United States. These sites challenge the narrative that laments the apparent passing of the “sleepy old cotton south.” Along with sites such as the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana and the International African American museum in South Carolina (due to open in 2020), the EJI’s museum and memorial rewrite the historical narrative and call upon us to confront the systemic violence that underpinned Southern society. I am left, however, pondering how to reach those who do not see the need for such sites.

(Photo by Todd Robertson, courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center).

A recent visit to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial in downtown Montgomery provided insight. I came across a photograph, taken in 1992 by Todd Robertson at a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) rally in Georgia, which showed a young boy dressed in a miniature Klan robe pointing at his reflection in a police riot shield. The Black officer is holding the shield with two hands and is looking down at the young boy. Upon viewing the image, conflicting thoughts ran through my mind. On the one hand, this image serves as a representation of possible hope for the future. The young boy appears innocent, even as he wears Klan garb. On the other hand, the image illuminates the perpetuation of racist thought and it lacks any vestige of hope.

The more I pondered the image, the more I came to view the boy as representative of a cycle that continues to this day. Drawn by his reflection, the boy walks up to the shield and points at himself, not the trooper holding the shield. In fact, the boy does not even appear to acknowledge the man who holds up the reflective device. Rather, he zeroes in on the image that the surface displays: himself. The Black officer might as well be invisible to the boy.

Immediately after Robertson snapped this picture, the boy’s mother scooped him up and went into the crowd. What this scene and the story of the photo reinforce, are the ways racist ideas have been taught and disseminated by others. In all likelihood, the boy does not understand or know why he wears the robe and attends a Klan rally, but eventually he will.

The EJI museum and memorial unearths this history, which some want to keep buried and out of sight. Working together, the EJI museum and memorial serve as sites that both educate and warrant reflection. The museum walks visitors through history showing the ways that the institution of slavery led to Jim Crow, then to mass incarceration. The museum stands on the site of a former slave warehouse. In this way, the museum links the past to the present for the visitor.

The threads that weave their way through our history draw tighter as visitors encounter holograms of enslaved individuals in cells, a walking chronology from slavery to mass incarceration, booths that resemble prison visits where visitors listen to the stories of inmates, walls of Jim Crow era signs and laws, jars filled with dirt from the sites of thousands of lynchings, and countless other exhibits. These exhibits engage the visitor in diverse ways, and by using holograms and interactive booths, visitors come face-to-face with individuals who have been oppressed due to white supremacy. In this manner, the museum makes the young boy in Robertson’s photograph see beyond his own reflection. It challenges the mythologized history of the South and the United States, illuminating the blood-stained cotton that makes up the “sleepy old cotton south.”

The memorial reinforces this theme, but unlike the museum, it exists as a space of reflection and contemplation. At the memorial, visitors see the names of over 4,000 individuals who perished at the hands of lynch mobs. Upon entering the memorial, visitors encounter Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s sculpture of enslaved individuals in chains. Visitors look into the eyes of shackled men, women, and children as they endure the atrocities of the slave system.

Walking through the memorial, the visitor descends underneath the metal memorials. This creates, as Ed Pilkington notes, the feeling of seeing “bare feet of the lynched men that similarly swung above the heads of their white assailants standing beneath them grinning into the camera.” The visitor becomes witness to the past through the act of looking upwards to reflect upon those individuals whose names appear etched into the metal monuments. Like the museum, the memorial forces the visitor to confront the actual history of this nation, not a mythologized view of American equality.

Through the EJI’s museum and memorial, Bryan Stevenson seeks to accomplish the same thing that Ida B. Wells did in her 1892 book, Southern Horrors. Wells wrote that she wanted the pamphlet to be “a contribution to truth” that led the American public to action. Wells added that she wanted the work to show the “Afro-American is not a bestial race.” One hundred and twenty-six years later, Stevenson hopes the EJI’s museum and memorial will obliterate the “idea that black people are not the same as white people, they aren’t fully human or evolved, and are presumed dangerous and guilty.” His statement captures the significance of these sites. As long as the past continues to be selectively remembered and memorialized, sites like the EJI museum and memorial must exist.

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Matthew Teutsch

Matthew Teutsch is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. He has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest's run on Black Panther. Follow him on Twitter @SilasLapham.