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A powerful memorial in Montgomery remembers the victims of lynching

Corten steel monuments with the names and dates of lynching victims are inscribed on them as they hang from the roof structure at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a somber, hilltop pergola of rusted steel overlooking the city that saw the birth of both the Confederacy and the civil rights movement, is one of the most powerful and effective new memorials created in a generation. When it opens on Thursday, this ambitious project will force America to confront not only its wretched history of lynching and racial terror, but an ongoing legacy of fear and trauma that stretches unbroken from the days of slavery to the Black Lives Matter movement of today.

As clearsighted, uncompromising and architecturally effective as any American design since Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the memorial sits in a mostly blighted neighborhood, overlooking the city where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in 1955. It is symbolically placed on high ground about a mile from the hill that hosts both the state capitol building and an abundance of Confederate statues, including an ornamental column celebrating Alabama’s Civil War dead as “the knightliest of the knightly race.” Even more remarkable, this memorial, comprising more than 800 coffin-shaped boxes of oxidized steel hanging from a square canopy, was built on a budget of only $15 million, in an age when major national memorials tend to cost $100 million and up.

The memorial is the project of Bryan Stevenson and his Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal and civil rights group that represents poor defendants, including juvenile offenders and death-row inmates. Stevenson, a 1995 winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant, set up the EJI more than two decades ago to focus on death-penalty cases. In recent years, he has expanded its role to include research into the criminal justice system and the history of lynching. In 2015, the group issued a comprehensive report on lynching that added some 700 new cases to the tally of how many African Americans lost their lives to extralegal and mob violence between 1877 and 1950.

That work led to Stevenson’s desire to memorialize the victims, and to do it in the American South, where the vast majority of these killings took place — often in public spectacles announced and celebrated by the local media. “The question I used to get,” says Stevenson, “was why don’t you do this in Washington, D.C.? And I just really believe it is important for Americans to make the journey, take the trip, and get proximate to the part of this country where this legacy was most intensely felt.”

Designed by Stevenson and his colleagues at EJI in collaboration with the Boston-based MASS Design Group, the memorial doesn’t break new formal ground and is clearly inspired by other monuments. Stevenson is deeply conversant in the recent history of memorial architecture, citing the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington among his inspirations. The design shows signs of all these precedents, from its first impression at a distance, in which it resembles the colonnade of the Lincoln Memorial. Upon closer approach, most of these Corten steel “monuments,” which seem at first to be columns, are revealed as suspended forms.

Once inside the memorial, visitors descend through four long corridors, arranged at right angles, and the monuments begin to form what looks like an ominous carillon of silent bells suspended over head. The descent into this space explicitly recalls the experience of Peter Eisenman’s sunken concrete jungle near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, in which the outside world disappears, replaced by a disorienting landscape of unyielding, funereal boxlike forms.

Despite these precedents, the memorial reconfigures old elements in a distinctly new way, and avoids both the slick and generic symbolism and the Hollywood bathos of many recent American memorials. Stevenson said he wanted to avoid any sense of false narrative uplift. The memorial had to focus on the impact and legacy of lynching, which often involved amputations, mutilation, torture and castration.

“The people who carried out this violence could have just shot people and buried them in the ground, but they didn’t want it to be a secret, they didn’t want it hidden, they didn’t want it obscured by dirt and dust,” he says. “They actually lifted up the bodies because they wanted to terrorize. They wanted the entire community to see it.” And so they photographed the lynchings, made postcards from the images, and distributed flesh torn from the body as souvenirs.

The memorial is located a few blocks from the EJI’s small but powerful new museum, which explains lynching as a direct legacy of slavery, a way of enforcing white supremacy and a de facto extension of the slave system after its legal abolition. Exhibits explore a consistent history of violence and control over African Americans: If lynching was a way of sustaining the exploitation of slavery, mass incarceration continues to extend the trauma of lynching with devastating damage to black families and communities.

Two key design elements in the memorial focus on this history. While the memorial is national in scope and ambition, itr esolutely focuses on American counties, insisting on local culpability while other memorials speak vaguely of national guilt or crime. Each suspended steel monument represents one of the hundreds of American counties in which lynching took place, and is inscribed with as many of the known names of the victims from that locality. A duplicate steel monument for each county is laid out horizontally, as if in a vast, open-air morgue, outside the memorial structure. Stevenson’s concept for the memorial includes the hope that individual counties will claim these duplicate steel boxes, and display them in some way in public places across the country. Counties that refuse to collect their “monument” will be shamed by the presence of the unclaimed coffin form on the grounds of the national memorial.

The memorial also focuses resolutely on the body, which is often hidden or elided in contemporary memorials. The steel monument forms are roughly human-sized, and while their layout looks strictly rectilinear at first, they actually have a slight spiral form in places, which is more organic than geometric. Gritty and realistic sculptures without a trace of idealization — of enslaved Africans, and the women who were at the forefront of the bus boycott — are placed throughout the memorial grounds. And the words of Toni Morrison, from her novel “Beloved,” form the last inscription as visitors leave the hilltop memorial structure: “They do not love your neck unnoosed and straight.”

If the focus on counties forces visitors to confront responsibility for racial terrorism in an often painfully local way, the focus on the body brings home the sexualized nature of the spectacle, which was ritualistically sadistic and often justified as punishment for men falsely accused of rape or sexual contact with white women. And it will make tangible for many people an important discourse about the black body — the way in which white supremacy obsesses about and tries to control black bodies — that is common in academic and civil rights circles, but less known among the general public, which encounters it mainly in the persistent denigration of the physical appearance of African American celebrities and political figures, such as Michelle Obama.

Soil samples from lynching sites across the country. On some samples the jars are marked with Unknown if the names of the victim were not known. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

So this is also a smarter and more intellectually ambitious memorial than many others, which too often deal in the platitudes of memory and healing. How did it happen? And why did it happen here?

Although this is a national memorial in every way that matters, it isn’t technically a “national memorial” administered by the federal government. Stevenson and his team used private funds and worked outside the complex and often faulty process of design and oversight that bedevils many major federal projects. They chose the site, bought the land and selected their collaborators, including the artists Hank Willis Thomas, Dana King and Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. They worked within a civic tradition that helped invent the localized, do-it-yourself ethos of the civil rights movement, in which ordinary people improvised networks and strategies to enact powerful symbolic demonstrations of resistance.

Stevenson’s long exposure to the inequities and cruelty of the criminal justice system also has made him quietly and intellectually uncompromising. More than anything else, he decided from the beginning not to let anyone off easy when it came to telling this story. This memorial, which suspends above its visitors an oppressive and heavy weight of history, asks and answers a question that others avoid: Was it as bad as this? It was, and worse.

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