A humid Wednesday afternoon in May. Montgomery, Alabama. With the day off to explore this southern city I went for a walk around town. Relying on my phone and Google Maps to find some must see locations I started with a visit to the Civil Rights Memorial created by Maya Lin through funding by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Walking from my hotel I passed landmarks like the bus stop where Rosa Parks boarded a city bus on December 1, 1955, and the Dexter Avenue King Baptist Church where Martin Luther King, Jr. served as Pastor from 1954-1960. During my visit to the Rosa Parks Museum on the campus of Troy University, a pleasant young woman named Keisha gave me directions to the recently dedicated “National Memorial for Peace and Justice” built by the Equal Justice Initiative. She pointed me up the street and around the corner suggesting I purchase tickets on my phone using the EJI App. $5.50 later I was on my way to visit a place I’ll never forget.
The memorial, consisting of 800 six foot tall metal monuments suspended from the structure, sits atop a grassy hillside on the six acre site. It is easy to see from the road, hauntingly inviting. Concrete poured into wooden molds gives the entrance a cold, hard feel. Mimicking the innards of a ship, complete with holes similar to those drilled by slaves seeking a glimpse of where they were sailing.
A quick trip through the metal detector and you emerge back into the daylight along a gravel path leading to a metal sculpture depicting an enslavement scene from the west coast of Africa.
A young mother in rusty chains reaches for her baby’s father who stands in defiance, looking off towards the memorial. Others have fallen to their knees in surrender. All are cuffed and bound by the chains. A closer look at the standing man’s face reveals a sense of calm despair, confusion, and strength.
Rust from the iron chains leaves marks along his timeless black metal skin resembling streams of blood.
Continuing along the gravel path brings you to the entrance of the structure where the metal monuments are supported by both the concrete floor and the post above. Each monument is inscribed with the date, State and County in which a terror lynching took place. Under the location are the names of the men, women and children who were killed there.
The pathway turns right. The concrete floor is replaced by a wooden deck and begins to slope downwards. The monuments pull away from the ground, wooden boxes remain like empty footprints below. Each step echos louder as the walls grow higher, hints of the sound one might hear boarding a slave ship.
Eyes are forced to look upward at the suspended monuments hanging over head. A lady ahead of me stands in silence, her legs and feet filling the space between.
Splintering the sunlight the blocks suggest a heavenly ascension, an escape from the injustice and hatred that fueled this time and place. There is light between them. Room to grow? Room to remember? And waiting outside, laying in rows, duplicates of each block sit and rust in the sun. Laid out alphabetically by state and county they wait to be collected, intended to be displayed as memorials themselves in the 800 counties where they belong. I found the one monument to the two men who were murdered in Utah. Hopefully it will be collected soon and put up on display in Salt Lake City.
With a heavy heart and bleary eyes I continued towards the exit, alone. Families walked together among the blocks looking for familiar names or their own home counties. An older white man sat and wept on a bench while his daughter consoled him. I heard him whisper to her, “but there are so many.”
The last statue as you approach the exit shows men with their arms held high in varying degrees of concrete submersion. They appear to surrender to water with the city scape dwarfed in the background. Until you walk around behind the sculpture and see a different perspective. Are their arms outstretched in surrender?
Or are they uplifted? Attempting to raise the monuments suspended before them.