Reckoning with America’s History of Lynching and Racial Terrorism

Peace And Justice Memorial
These tragedies are part of our history. No matter how painful that truth is, it helps us recognize the mistakes we’ve made so that we don’t repeat them.
Barack Obama

EJI also hosted a Peace and Justice concert at Montgomery's Riverwalk Amphitheater featuring performances by The Roots, Dave Matthews, Usher, Common, Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes, Jon Batiste, Kirk Franklin, Tasha Cobbs, Robert Glasper, Valerie June, Greg Phillinganes, Alabama State University Choir, and a surprise performance by Stevie Wonder. Although each performance was filled with emotion and dedication, the one song that hummed through my ears was “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. I repeated the words “southern trees bear strange fruit” over and over again and while the lyrics never mention lynching, the metaphor was painfully clear.

EJI’s Executive Director Bryan Stevenson’s hope is that people will confront the pain, suffering, and anguish that was felt by black people during the terrorism of lynching. He also hopes people will see the humanity, strength, dignity, and the capacity to endure through each life that was taken and their family members who survived through it.

The memorial starts with a chain of slave sculptures, then proceeds with a selection of texts that craft a historical narrative leading to the central memorial, which features 800 suspended rusted steel columns, resembling strange fruit. Each column is titled with the county name and state, which follows inscribed names of each lynched victim. Those who remain unidentified are marked “unknown.”

“It feels very drenched in blackness in a very beautiful way. It’s exciting, it’s nourishing, it’s necessary.... This has to be a place where every American who believes in justice and dignity must come.” said Ava DuVernay, Oscar-nominated director of the documentary 13th.

The hanging columns were conceived in collaboration with Michael Murphy of MASS Design Group, a Boston-based architecture firm best known for its public-interest projects in Africa and Haiti. In the park around the central memorial are 800 duplicate pillars, waiting to be adopted by their respective counties. Over time, this will reveal which communities have helped spread the Memorial’s message—and which have not. 

The museum houses the nation's most comprehensive collection of data on lynching. It also offers unseen archival information brought to life through first-person accounts from enslaved people as they narrate the sights and sounds of the domestic slave trade. The extensive research and videography helps visitors understand the racial terrorism of lynching, and the humiliation of the Jim Crow South. 

"There is still so much to be done in this country to recover from our history of racial inequality," Stevenson said. "I'm hopeful that sites like the ones we are building and conversations like the ones we're organizing will empower and inspire people to have the courage to create a more just and healthy future. We can achieve more in America when we commit to truth-telling about our past."

We can achieve more in America when we commit to truth-telling about our past.
Bryan Stevenson

As Stevenson mentions, there is much to do to recover from our history of racial inequality. Vera is committed to addressing racial disparities in the justice system, as well as ending the era of mass incarceration that has devastated communities of color. Until then, we will continue to confront our history and begin healing. 

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