As It Happens

Memorial and museum to victims of lynching opens in Alabama

Creator Bryan Stevenson says the goal is to create a space that is "unflinching, honest, and difficult."

Creator Bryan Stevenson says the goal is to create a space that is 'unflinching, honest, and difficult'

A bronze statue called Raise U" forms part of the display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice — a new memorial in Montgomery, Ala., to honour thousands of people killed in racist lynchings. (Brynn Anderson/The Associated Press)
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For the first time, in Montgomery, Ala., the names of Fred Rochelle, David Walker, and Emmett Till — along with some 4,000 other victims of lynchings across the United States — have been etched into steel.

The memorial and museum opened on Thursday.

It is the brainchild of Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, who spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Here is part of that conversation.

Mr. Stevenson, describe for us what visitors see as they walk toward this memorial.

When you enter our memorial, you'll first see a sculpture on slavery.

In the United States, we of course enslaved millions of black people. And we haven't really acknowledged that history. We haven't talked about it. And for a lot of people it will be the first time they've ever seen a slavery sculpture.

So as you walk past the sculpture, you'll walk up to a square where there are hundreds of steel six-foot monuments. And they begin at eye level. You walk through them.

And then when you get to the next quarter, they begin to rise. And then in the third quarter, they are suspended above you.

And they sort of haunt you as you walk down this path where we tell the stories of black people who were lynched.

The memorial was the brainchild of Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson. (Brynn Anderson/The Associated Press)

Is there something there for each person whom you know was lynched — is there some recognition for each individual?

Yes, we've documented over 4,300 victims of racial-terror lynchings. And each of their names are engraved on these monuments, which correspond to particular counties.

All of the lynching victims from a particular county will have their name engraved and the date of the lynching on the monument.

At our museum, visitors will have the opportunity to learn about each of these people. 

We are certainly in a time when there isn't a day or a week that goes by without some very open discussion about white supremacy in the United States and elsewhere. What can your museum and memorial tell us about why that exists now?

Well, when I go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, I'm moved by the experience. And at the end of the experience, I'm motivated to say, like many others, "Never again."

With a consciousness of what happened, we commit ourselves to fighting against that kind of brutal genocide and bigotry.

My hope is that by creating spaces that are unflinching, that are honest, that are difficult, we can motivate a generation of people to say 'never again'.- Bryan Stevenson

The problem is that in America, we have not created cultural institutions — spaces — that motivate people to make the commitment of "Never again."

We don't talk about slavery. We haven't talked about lynching. We haven't talked about segregation in a way that provokes that response.

And so my hope is that by creating spaces that are unflinching, that are honest, that are difficult, we can motivate a generation of people to say 'Never again,"

And when that happens, it becomes less acceptable for people to celebrate white supremacy, for people to celebrate bigotry.

The bronze sculpture was unveiled this week. (Brynn Anderson/The Associated Press)

How will you encourage to people to see this, to take in what you're describing, and understand this arc — given that the people you need to confront this perhaps would not be interested in knowing?

I actually think that when you create something that has power and meaning, people will respond in ways that are not always predictable. I think you have to believe things you haven't seen.

So I'm encouraged, actually. We've had thousands of people sign up to be with us this week.

Some are more sceptical than others. But all I hope will be moved and motivated to advance this process of truth and reconciliation, which I believe is desperately needed in our nation.

We're still haunted by this legacy. We're still easily provoked — a lot of tension, a lot of conflict. And we're not going to get where we're trying to go until we have the courage to face the past.

Written by Chris Harbord and Kevin Ball. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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