Lynching memorial in Alabama: To confront South's history 'with courage'

Plans to build a monument in Montgomery, Ala., to victims of lynchings between 1877 and 1950, as well as an accompanying museum, were announced by a nonprofit group. It hopes to open both in 2017.

Jay Reeves/AP/File
Water flows over names on a memorial in Montgomery, Ala., dedicated to those killed during the civil rights movement. The same group that erected the marker is planning a memorial and museum to black lynching victims in the city long known as the first capital of the Confederacy.

Visitors to Montgomery, Ala., could soon be able to pay homage to the thousands of African Americans killed by lynching in the US, thanks to a new lynching memorial set to open next year in the first capital of the Confederacy. 

The memorial is being built by the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and dedicated to the 4,075 blacks who were victims of "terror lynchings" between 1877 and 1950, according to the group's research. Plans call for it to be accompanied by a nearby museum, called "From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration," devoted to the history of African Americans from the days of slavery to the present. 

The memorial announcement follows Saturday's dedication of the first National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The museum contains relics celebrating the achievements of famous black Americans, such as the Chicago Bulls jersey worn by Michael Jordan (who donated $5 million to the museum) during the 1996-1997 NBA playoffs, and contains displays dedicated to slavery and the "Era of Segregation." 

"Race is the last great unmentionable in many ways: We talk about it, but we don’t talk about it," Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Washington museum, told David Karas, reporting for The Christian Science Monitor last month. Mr. Bunch told the Monitor he hoped the public acknowledgement of the more unpleasant aspects of history would spur dialogue and change, explaining that "if a nation understands its history, it is a wonderful tool to help a nation figure out how they live their lives, how to understand the conditions they face." 

In a similar sense, Equal Justice Initiative director Bryan Stevenson says, the aim of the lynching memorial is to "change the landscape" of America's national dialogue on race. 

"I don't think we can afford to continue pretending that there aren't these really troubling chapters in our history," Mr. Stevenson told the Associated Press. "I think we've got to deal with it." 

The museum, he told The New York Times, will feature databases for historical research, as well as virtual reality stations that will simulate the experience of being in the cargo hold of a slave trafficking ship, sitting in at a lunch counter amid angry jeers, and being in a modern-day prison. 

The lynching memorial, in particular, has its critics, as some argue it could prove to be more polarizing than unifying. 

"With the climate in America right now I don't know that that's a good idea," said Marlin Taylor, an African-American visitor to Montgomery from Spokane, Wash., to the Associated Press. "I feel like that could be more divisive than anything." 

But those behind the memorial say they hope the attraction will open up communication rather than widening a divide.  

"Our goal isn’t to be divisive," Stevenson told the New York Times. "Our goal is just to get people to confront the truth of our past with some more courage."

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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