Thousands of Lynching Victims Honored in First of its Kind Museum

A museum, including a memorial dedicated to thousands of Black victims of lynching, scheduled to open in 2017 in Montgomery, Alabama.

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), based in Montgomery, Alabama, announced its plans to build The Memorial to Peace and Justice. The first of its kind memorial will pay tribute to the estimated 4,000 plus Black victims of “racial terror lynchings,” defined as “acts of violence that were done with complete impunity, where there was no risk of prosecution,” between 1877 and 1950.

During the most active years of lynching, the population of Blacks in the country was an estimated 7 million. Lynching reached its peak in 1892. When configured for today’s population, the 4,000 victims calculated by the EJI translates to about 24,000 lives lost — about eight times the number of people who died on 9/11.

EJI is a non-profit group based in Alabama that fights against racial inequality in the legal system. Founded in 1989, the group helps prisoners who have not been afforded a fair trial.

Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of EJI, said it is “important” for America to “own up” to its horrific history regarding slavery and racial injustice. He compared the group’s plans to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

“I think it’s important because when you do that, you change your identity,” he said. “You change your relationship to these histories of mass atrocities and violence. But when you don’t do that, things linger. The smog created by that history of racial inequality continues to compromise our health. And in this country, we haven’t done that about slavery. About lynching. About segregation.”

The memorial will bear the names of the victims engraved on over 800 columns representing the various counties where the lynchings occurred.

In addition to the memorial, the museum, From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, “will connect the history of racial inequality with contemporary issues of mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and police violence,” the EJI stated.

Americans make up 25 percent of the world’s prison population, even though the U.S. only represents 5 percent of the world’s population. According to the Center for American Progress, Blacks make up 40 percent of the incarcerated population — despite only constituting 13 percent of the U.S. population overall.

The museum will teach about the history of lynching, racism and segregation through facts and data and with modern-day technology, including videos, recordings and high-tech exhibits. In addition, the museum will connect these issues to problems of the present day, including mass incarceration and police violence. Virtual reality stations, for instance, will allow visitors to experience being in the cargo hold of a slave trafficking ship as well as how it feels today to be in an overcrowded prison.

“Our goal isn’t to be divisive,” Stevenson said in a New York Times interview. “Our goal is just to get people to confront the truth of our past with some more courage.”

According to Stevenson, the museum and memorial will present a side of American history not currently displayed in the country.

“In the South, the landscape is littered with the iconography of the Confederacy. We love talking about mid-19th century history,” he said. “In Montgomery, there are 59 markers and monuments to the Confederacy. Our two largest high schools are Robert E. Lee High and Jefferson Davis High. Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday. Jefferson Davis’s birthday is a state holiday. We don’t even have Martin Luther King Day — it’s Martin Luther King Day/Robert E. Lee Day. We are preoccupied with the mid-19th century history, but we won’t talk about slavery. And that creates a problem.”

But Stevenson also added that the point of presenting this side of history is not to punish anyone — rather, it’s to open a dialogue.

“I want us to be liberated from the chains that this history has created,” he explained.

The museum will be set in downtown Montgomery on the site of a former slave warehouse.

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