On my way from Atlanta to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice I crossed the Chattahoochee River and read the sign at the state line, “Welcome to Sweet Home Alabama.” That was my destination Montgomery, Alabama. The birthplace of the Confederacy and the Civil Rights movement.
The National Museum of Peace and Justice sits on six acres in Montgomery. It was opened on April 26th of this year. It features the names of the over 4,000 men, women, and children that were lynched in the south after the Civil War ended. Each name is listed on a slab indicating the County their body was found in. As I entered the Memorial I began reading the kiosks each documents the horrifying history of slavery, lynching, and oppression.
As you begin your climb up the small hill to the Monument there is a water station with volunteers that offer water. I gladly took a paper cup in an effort to keep myself hydrated in the Alabama heat.
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The first thing you notice about the Memorial is the large slabs hanging from the ceiling of the open air building. Each contains a Southern County with a list of people that were lynched in that County. The 800 slabs are six feet in height. They hang from the ceilings like bodies. As you walk through the exhibit you begin to see signs listing what each person was lynched for. Some of them being lynched for merely asking for a glass of water or drinking from a well of a white person.
It was interesting to watch people react to the exhibit one older African American man read each kiosk out loud. It gave the words even more gravity. Another woman gasped as she read about an entire family, husband, wife and small children being lynched. Yet, another woman held her adult daughter’s hand tightly to her as she stopped at each kiosk. You can’t visit this monument without feeling emotion. We speak so little as a society about these 4,000 lives lost to domestic terrorism.
As you come out of the building you find a duplicate set of slabs lined up along the ground in order by state then county. As I walked through these I began to realize the bitter truth. Good people stayed silent and allowed evil to persist. I find myself embarrassed because I know deep in my heart some of those people who stayed silent may have been my own ancestors. I have many relatives on both sides that lived in the South during this time. I can only hope that they spoke up.
Edmund Burke ~ “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
Advisory – Video and lyrics contain graphic scenes
If you pay a visit note that you can not bring a backpack, camera bag, or tripod and you must go through a metal detector. Security is tight here.
After I left the Memorial I decided to go the Dexter Avenue King Church. Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted his first position as a pastor at this church in 1954. This little church’s basement was also the birthplace of the Montgomery bus boycotts (1955-56). This boycott became famous in the civil rights movement. It began the unraveling of Jim Crow laws in the South.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s office is open for touring. I stopped in the cathedral to say a prayer. In the basement they have an amazing mural that depicts the story of the civil rights movement of the South.
When I exited the church I looked up towards the capital. It looked regal from this vantage point, up a top the hill. As I walked up the street and drew closer I saw a tall statue that looked out over the historic Church and wondered who could stand in this place of honor. I climbed the marble stairs only to realize it was Jefferson Davis, pro slavery advocate, slave owner, and President of the Confederate. I was a little taken a back by the strong contrast, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. Montgomery was the first capital of the Confederacy and Dexter Avenue itself was the site of Davis’ inaugural parade.
To the other side of the Capital lawn is a statue of Dr. James Marion Sims, the father of gynecology. He became an expert in gynecology by performing hundreds of surgeries on slave women without anesthesia. He believed that black people did not feel pain in the same way. The statue omits the horrifying parts of this story and only lists his accomplishments. Forgetting the torture he inflicted.
I walked around the grounds and found a large confederate memorial to one side. The engraving tells a story of confederate soldiers being heroic chivalrous knights. In the front portico there is a star marking the place Jefferson Davis took his oath of office. I entered the building looking for the gift shop to get some more water. It was so hot and humid. The capital was full of children on school fieldtrips and as I walked through I noticed another display on Jefferson Davis. Note he’s listed as President Jefferson Davis.
The grounds lack any representation of its non-white citizens.
After the end of the Civil War the Confederate flag would not fly at the capital again for nearly 100 years. In 1961 amidst the strong Civil Rights movement, the flag was raised again at the capital per the governors orders and would remain their until 2015.
I wonder what Martin Luther King, Jr. thought as he exited his church each night? Did he look up the hill at the statue of Davis staring out over his little church? I wonder if these monuments have caused some people to wonder if justice lives in these halls for them? Although, the inside has a few displays on voting rights, the grounds seem to primarily celebrate slave owners and men who worked to oppress people of color.
As I left Montgomery I felt deeply conflicted… It’s an interesting place, a beautiful place, and everyone I met was so nice, yet I can’t seem to reconcile what Montgomery is… it contradicts itself.